In Russia’s parliamentary election of September 18, the ruling party United Russia won a crushing victory, securing 343 out of 450 seats in the new State Duma. Now the attention of the Kremlin switches to the next election, for which this vote was essentially a rehearsal: the 2018 presidential poll. It seems the authorities have concluded that they will stage another overwhelming display of power that demoralizes the opposition.

This September the Kremlin clearly set itself the priority of winning United Russia a massive presence in the Duma through the 225 contests in single-member districts. The supermajority it ended up with—including 203 single-member seats—can be attributed as much to the political laws of nature as to its own design. If an electoral district wants to send a lobbyist to the capital, it would rather pick someone from the ruling party. The locals need someone in parliament who will deal with local issues such as fixing roads and who is not so bothered by questions such as the international status of Crimea.

In fact, United Russia’s majority is so huge that the Kremlin is considering splitting it into a political fraction and a regional group, which will inevitably have disagreements over some specific issues, such as budget appropriations.

The election winners obviously got plenty of help from the local and central governments, but the other side of the coin is that the non-parliamentary and liberal opposition fared really badly in this election. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties and the candidates supported by Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia not only did not win seats, they even failed to achieve second place. For example, the little-known communist Pavel Tarasov came in second in central Moscow, where much better known opposition members Professor Andrei Zubov and Maria Baronova were running against each other.

This is why the authorities needed this massive majority in parliament. The outcome of the last parliamentary election in 2011 and widespread reports of vote-rigging triggered big street demonstrations in Moscow and other cities. This time, there was not even a hint of protests—not just because the electoral process was more legitimate but also because the opposition defeat was so overwhelming.

The opposition’s parlous performance cannot be blamed on low turnout. It is hard to imagine that the 50 million people who did not turn out to vote would have voted any differently from those who did. Perhaps Alexei Navalny would have won in one district, but that would not have secured him a parliamentary faction.

Moreover, the opposition always maintained in the past that once it was allowed to talk freely to the electorate, the voters would understand that its candidates were better, purer, and more honest than others. In this election the opposition had a chance to campaign more freely—but the voters did not switch their allegiances.

As it happens, the government does not yet have a clear idea of what to do with its big new constitutional majority in the Duma. It does know that it needs this majority to intimidate its opponents, who must now say to themselves, “Guys, we are nobody now.” That is the verdict even of some of those public leaders who urged people out onto the streets in protest five years ago.

In 2011–2012, when large parts of the public rallied on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow and other places, it was not just a protest against the crude falsification of the elections. It was also that, as they saw that United Russia had secured only a bare majority in the Duma, people dared to believe that opposition candidates could actually have won. They may have believed that they were robbed of an almost sure victory, and that a little effort would change the outcome and give Russia a truly representative multi-party system.

The ruling bureaucracy drew two conclusions from the protests of 2011–2012. First, that the elections should not be conducted so crudely. Second, that the opposition should not be allowed to feel that it came anywhere close to achieving its goals, and should instead be made to know its place.

Ruling elites in authoritarian regimes generally believe that if they failed in something it was because of weakness, and that they just need to be stronger next time. To paraphrase Harry Truman, being in power is like riding a tiger, you have to keep on riding or be swallowed up. In this instance, the tiger is Russian society.

For that reason, the system does not blame Vladislav Surkov, who was in charge of the 2011 Duma elections, for excessive irregularities at the polls. Instead, it believes Surkov’s mistake was that his methods delivered a result that made the regime look weak in the eyes of the public. As a result, it seems, some psychological barriers went down and ordinary Russians felt they could air their grievances and put pressure on the government without fear of retribution.

In 2011, the Kremlin concludes, the active segment of the population critical of the regime could have been grateful to the government, entered into dialogue with it, and gradually become part of the system. Instead, it interpreted the election results as evidence that the system was weak and that it could bring the system crashing down and take all the spoils.

What does this tell us about Russia’s 2018 presidential elections?

It tells us that the country’s political leadership sees the low turnout in the 2016 Duma elections as a potential problem—even though it delivered a resounding victory. Casting a vote for the ruling class is in danger of becoming dull and routine. If this trend continues, there will be a similarly low turnout in 2018—something the Kremlin does not want to allow, given that this might be a vote for Putin’s last term in office, which will help determine his legacy.

If Putin wants to be elected with an overwhelming number of votes on a high turnout in 2018, he has two obvious options. He needs either to resort to a less legitimate electoral process (he would have to artificially inflate voter turnout) or to mobilize his supporters by other means, probably by stirring them up against an enemy.

He could also mobilize the electorate by allowing genuine competition in the election. But the ruling bureaucracy won’t dare to take this step in 2018, first, because Putin’s rival in the election would probably remain on the political scene after the president departs and second, because the regime would again fear that this move toward greater openness would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

The lesson Russia’s rulers learned from the political turbulence of 2011–2012 was that they did not deliver a sufficiently impressive result that thoroughly demoralized their opponents. Instead they gave them the illusion that they might be able to succeed.

In 2016, they have killed these illusions and no one is protesting. For that reason, they will not allow the 2018 presidential election to be genuinely competitive.

  • Alexander Baunov