United Russia’s declining ratings are increasingly forcing the presidential administration and regional authorities to abandon affiliation to the ruling political party during elections. Six out of sixteen regions holding gubernatorial elections this September will allow independents to run, to accommodate acting governors who don’t want to be affiliated with a political party during the campaign. Meanwhile, nearly half of the regions electing regional legislatures will have a greater share of single-member district seats, which will also make more independent campaigns possible.

The government is trying to solve the problem of its declining popularity by using tactical methods that are in fact destroying its political infrastructure and harming its own political party. Politics is becoming local and personal, and the big questions are redirected to the very top.

Until recently, independent gubernatorial candidates were a rare exception, and only special candidates were afforded that privilege, such as Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who preferred not to be associated with United Russia in protest-prone Moscow in both the 2013 and 2018 elections.

Independent campaigns were considered a deviation from the norm for a reason. Party-affiliated votes insured the regime against the emergence of strong independent candidates such as influential local businessmen and former government officials. 

But the situation has changed. A number of unpopular government measures—in particular raising the retirement age—have dented the ratings of both the government and especially United Russia. When Oleg Kozhemyako ran as an independent in the rerun of the annulled Primorye gubernatorial election in December 2018, he won with 62 percent of the vote, so now the ostensibly successful practice is being rolled out in other regions. Party affiliations in gubernatorial elections are clearly on their way out.

The same is true of elections to regional legislatures. In preparation for September elections, regional legislatures are increasing the proportion of single-member district legislators from the traditional 50 percent to up to 75 percent at the expense of party-list candidates. In total this fall, six of thirteen regions will elect legislatures in which single-member district parliamentarians will dominate.

While at the tactical level these innovations will help the government to elect more of its candidates at regional elections (especially in legislatures), the sidelining of the party component will pose problems in the relatively near future for both United Russia and the power vertical as a whole.

The ruling party will take the hardest hit. High-profile candidates will treat it as a toxic asset and try to distance themselves from it even more. Alexander Berdnikov, head of the Altai republic, has said that people recoil from United Russia “like the devil from holy water,” so he understands candidates who decide to run as independents.

When it comes to gubernatorial candidates, the problem is even more pronounced: if acting governors no longer require United Russia’s services, what kind of ruling party is it? By disowning United Russia, the Kremlin and regional administrations are depriving it of its main asset—its status—and acknowledging that association with the party is harmful. If even the rulers don’t need the ruling party, then why would voters, especially in the absence of any clear ideology within United Russia?

Meanwhile, the regime simply doesn’t have any other framework, and by disowning United Russia, the Kremlin is further weakening the political construct in the regions.

The interests of regional authorities and United Russia are beginning to diverge. Governors need an obedient legislative majority, while United Russia wants a large faction. There was a time when these two things were one and the same, but that’s no longer the case. It’s hard to get an obedient majority elected with United Russia’s help, which means that independent single-member district legislators may become a new “anti-party” upon which regional administrations will rely.

Other in-system parties such as the Communists and LDPR are also finding themselves on the losing side. In the past, they could entice sponsors with the prospect of winning seats on their party lists, but now the number of such seats has dwindled dramatically. Consequently, the existence of these parties’ regional chapters becomes questionable.

The current party system was created back in the day when domestic policy was the domain of then first deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov. Strong federal and regional politicians were forced to join party structures as the share of single-member district legislators was reduced, while party lists became more prevalent. All of this was done to increase the system’s manageability: a multitude of figures and regional centers gave way to a unified vertical construct. United Russia parliamentarians picked up the pro-President Vladimir Putin majority vote, while the in-system opposition helped to channel protest sentiment.

At one point, this system guaranteed the Kremlin excellent election results, but it’s clearly not up to the present challenges. Yet the center is not building anything to replace it. Party organization is being replaced with a hodgepodge of independent individual candidates who lack any particular ideology.

Such actions endanger the power vertical in several ways. The disgruntled public ask global questions: Why is the retirement age being raised? Why are prices and utility bills increasing, while salaries are not? Is it worth spending so much on Syria, Venezuela, and the arms race? Independent candidates running for governor or regional legislator can answer them easily by saying, “That’s a federal issue for which I’m not responsible, but I’ll try to solve local problems.” As a result, all grievances are automatically redirected to the Kremlin.

This no-party tactic is unlikely to help, even in the short term. Pro-government candidates will be seen as such, even without the United Russia brand. The problem of United Russia’s low popularity may be solved, but the presidential administration will have to monitor a myriad of district races, where local influence groups, politicians, and wealthy businessmen will be playing their own game. Even originally pro-government candidates will start feeling more independent, and elections with no party control will become far livelier and less predictable.

Does the presidential administration have any other options? Most probably not. Given the fact that obscure spoiler candidates have started winning gubernatorial elections through voters expressing their discontent, even a few percent of the vote gained by abandoning the ruling party could make a difference. Putin will be only too pleased to shift the blame onto United Russia.

Victories by independents will also rid the in-system opposition parties of any excess confidence: after their unexpected wins in last year’s elections, the latter might otherwise demand a greater role in the system.

The old trappings of the political infrastructure are getting in the way of solving tactical issues. In the current atmosphere of popular discontent, they are not needed. The presidential administration is brushing them aside in the political struggle, to be replaced with micromanagement and chaos, which the center apparently believes to be manageable and predictable. But for now, what’s truly predictable is only that every tactical move will create new problems for the regime.

  • Andrey Pertsev