The Real Message From Russia’s Disputed Election
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Despite years of fading popularity, the party that backs Russian President Vladimir Putin has won well over two-thirds of the seats in the country’s new parliament. An electoral system that punishes a divided opposition helped — but so too did bans of so-called extremists, doppelganger candidates, pliant Western tech companies and electronic voting, which delivered surging support for United Russia just as key races in Moscow appeared to be going wrong. Social media footage of ballot-stuffing and reports of violations abounded, despite official denials of widespread wrongdoing.
The Kremlin hopes the headline result will project popularity and strength. Don’t be fooled.
United Russia’s ability to retain a parliamentary supermajority is less telling than the exertions needed to achieve it. Alexey Navalny, Putin’s loudest critic, was jailed earlier in the year. His organization was banned as extremist and then dismantled. Other irksome candidates were blocked, including a high-ranking Communist Party official who had run for president in 2018. The government cloaked electoral statistics and limited access to video streams from polling stations, making it harder to detect fraud. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were conspicuously absent.
In preparation for the 2024 presidential vote, when Putin is expected to stand for a fifth term, the government experimented with improved authoritarian tactics. It favored three-day voting and electronic ballots, both more difficult to monitor. It also clamped down on unhelpful internet content — a growing concern for the regime as the audience for state-run television shrinks. Apple Inc. and Alphabet’s Google Inc. complied with requests to shut down access to an app designed to mobilize “smart votes” against Kremlin-approved candidates.
The ruling party might well have won a majority regardless, thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system that applies to half the State Duma’s seats — but merely winning was apparently deemed not good enough. That message filtered down to local and regional officials, who pulled out all the stops. Unable to answer concerns over a lingering pandemic, rising prices, shrinking real incomes and corruption that encouraged Russians into the streets earlier this year, the Kremlin chose to emphasize control over credibility. It's a sign not of strength but of the regime's underlying fragility: Putin fears the consequences should he loosen his grip.
None of this bodes well. A combination of apathy, despondency and repression might make a resumption of 2011’s post-electoral protests impossible. Back then, widespread accusations of fraud triggered mass street protests — but the country was at the tail end of Dmitry Medvedev’s comparatively liberal presidency. Russia in 2021 is a darker place than it has been in decades, and the rest of the world needs to take note.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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