According to the latest public opinion polls, the results of the elections to the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, would be as follows: Putin’s United Russia would win the support of 35 percent of Russians (or about 53 percent of active voters—individuals who say that they will definitely vote and have a candidate in mind). The Communist Party (CPRF) would garner 14 percent (20 percent of active voters), and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) would earn 9 percent (14 percent). Just Russia’s popularity is right at the brink of the 5 percent threshold for getting seats in the Duma. The rest of the parties are not expected to get more than 1 percent of the votes each, which means that, based on current estimates, only four parties would make it into the Duma based on party lists. There is no doubt, then, that United Russia will win the majority of seats. 

The above distribution is not surprising. During the four and a half years since the previous elections, the ratings of the main political parties have changed only marginally. 

United Russia is the only party that has seen its rating change substantially. In late 2013, the rating had dipped below 30 percent, dropping by more than 10 percentage points. The overall delegitimization of the regime had affected support for the party of power. However, after the annexation of Crimea, the share of Russians ready to vote for United Russia jumped from 29 percent to 37 percent within just a few weeks. Approval ratings then continued to climb gradually, peaking with the Victory Day celebrations in May 2015, when half of the population was prepared to cast ballots for United Russia. 

Since then, support for United Russia has been waning, much like President Vladimir Putin’s personal approval rating. This is in part a consequence of the economic crisis and the depletion of the mobilization effect. In addition, as the elections approach, other parties will “chip away” at United Russia’s share of votes. 

That said, on the whole, public sentiment in the 2016 election year is cardinally different from the 2011 election year. Five years ago, the approval ratings of top officials and the party of power had been trending down for several years prior to the elections, a wave of protests had swept through Russian cities (Vladivostok, Kaliningrad, Pikalyovo), and the political system had been in crisis.

The 2013 Moscow mayoral race showed that a vigorous and well-organized campaign could shake things up. At the beginning of the campaign, opposition leader Alexei Navalny had a rating of no more than 1 percent, but he finished the race in second place, securing 27 percent of the votes. Surveys showed that his campaign was as memorable to Muscovites as that of incumbent Sergey Sobyanin, even though Navalny had no access to national television channels. 

Yet, the opposition was unable to replicate the success of that campaign in 2014 or 2015. They are no more likely to do so now, especially since the Crimea effect has virtually negated the protest potential in Russia.

The Kremlin controls all parliamentary parties to some extent, so they do not need to compete with each other. Their objective is to get into parliament, maintain their status, and obtain government financing. 

Overall, the liberal parties currently have two key problems: the lack of understanding about their work and the high disapproval ratings of their leaders among the general electorate. Even Yabloko’s reputation is fading. About half of survey respondents say that they “know nothing about what the party does” and between 40 and 70 percent of survey participants have trouble answering most of the questions about the image of liberal parties. Meanwhile, opposition figures Grigory Yavlinsky, Mikhail Kasyanov, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Alexei Navalny have some of the highest disapproval ratings among Russian politicians. 

It is true that the Russian media play a central role in shaping this incoherent or negative image. Most publications, television channels, and radio stations are under the control of the regime in one way or another, and give no access to opposition figures. No more than 30 percent of Russians are currently exposed to information from independent Russian news sources. It should therefore come as no surprise that about 70 percent of Russians are not aware of developments such as the release of Alexei Navalny’s film about Prosecutor General Yury Chaika or the publication of Ilya Yashin’s report on Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

At the same time, it would be naïve to say that liberal-democratic forces are so unpopular only because of pro-Kremlin propaganda. More than half of Moscow residents have access to independent media, but Yabloko and the People’s Freedom Party are not much more popular with them. This is largely because opposition parties are only active in election season, and even then they frequently limit themselves to discussing technical details (such as how to overcome the 5 percent threshold or how to gather signatures) instead of presenting alternative visions of the future that appeal to voters. 

Russia is slowly seeing politicians emerge who build their reputation through continued interaction with the people, but for now they are the exception rather than the rule. They might be working toward election campaigns far in the future, but for the time being we will likely see another lackluster campaign that can do nothing to significantly change the political landscape. 

  • Denis Volkov