Moscow, Sep 18 (IANS) The elections to the Duma, the lower house of Russian parliament, as well as to dozens of municipal and regional bodies, began on Sunday, with a few signs of it being a voting day.
Very few people were on the streets and no election posters, banners, cutouts or campaign photos were to be seen anywhere.
This edition of Russia’s quinquennial legislative elections comes at a momentous time. Russia has just concluded an agreement with the United States on ceasefire in Syria, paving the way for new talks on that country’s future.
Besides, these elections are being held under a change in the rules of the game.
Election law now allows more parties to participate than in 2011, when the Duma elections were followed by violent street protests over alleged poll rigging by the ruling United Russia Party led by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Putin, the all-powerful and charismatic leader, has appointed a respected human rights advocate, Ella Pamfilova, to head the Election Commission, while law changes now allow some opposition candidates to contest the polls.
For instance, former oil tycoon and Putin’s arch rival, Mikhail Khodorkovsky who spent a decade in a Siberian prison, has been allowed to finance 18 candidates as part of his Open Russia initiative.
Moreover, the mixed principle has been applied in elections to the Duma for the first time since 2003. In 2007 and 2011, Russians elected MPs from federal party lists only.
This time, 225 of the 450 parliamentary seats will be occupied by deputies included on the federal candidate lists of parties while the rest will be taken up by candidates elected according to a first-past-the-post system in each of the 225 independent constituencies that make up the Russian Federation.
Crimea will take part in the Russian Duma election for the first time since its cessation from Ukraine, which has urged Crimeans to boycott the election.
Meanwhile, it is the current state of the Russian economy that highlights the need for a new legislature that is seen by the people as a legitimate institution.
The economy is deep into a recession with Russia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in decline for the sixth consecutive quarter.
After the sharp economic downturn from late 2014 and early 2015 brought on by lower crude oil prices and international sanctions over its conflict with Ukraine, the decline gave way to the current stagnation where indices are at near zero, with GDP hovering around 0.5-0.7 per cent.
The Russian Finance Ministry has already had to borrow from the country’s reserve fund three times in 2016 to support the economy, while it is estimated here that at the current rate, those reserves will touch rock bottom by mid-2017.
It is also estimated that the $72 million National Wealth Fund, built up when oil prices were high, could be depleted in 2017-2019.
According to the Centre for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-Term Forecasting here, with only a slight rise in real wages, consumer spending is down as citizens avoid making major purchases.
The 2011 elections took place with oil at $100-plus a barrel, a growing economy, indexed pensions, and a balanced budget. In 2016, oil is ranging around $35 to $45, Western sanctions are in place against Russia, and the country is facing falling ruble, double-digit inflation, unpaid salaries, and sharp budget cuts.
The country witnessed back-to-back strikes recently, including a metro workers’ strike here, protests over unpaid teachers’ wages in Murmansk, and a ten-day truck drivers’ strike against new taxes.
The Putin-Medvedev party of United Russia currently has around 53 per cent of the popular mandate, and those described here as the “systemic opposition” of old Communists (20 per cent), Liberal Democrats (13 per cent), and Just Russia (14 per cent).
Putin, who does not have to stand for re-election as President until 2018, continues to have a high approval rating, buoyed by his role in the Crimea as protector of Russian values and restorer of Russian greatness in the world arena.
Putin has deliberately kept a low profile for himself in these Duma elections unlike in 2011, while the United Russia has hardly used his image in the 2016 campaign.
This is reflected in the fact that in the capital here, there have been fewer election posters and banners on view than in previous years, said Valeria Bolshova, who works at a hotel run by a multinational chain.
“I have not gone to vote and I am not sure whether I will be able to do so by the end of the day,” she said.
Yumzhana Dorzhieva, who is a student of finance at Moscow State University, said that most of her friends were supporters of the ruling United Russia Party.
“But most of my friends as well as me have not gone to vote this time, though I became eligible to vote in 2015,” Dorzhieva said.
Besides, being from the Lake Baikal area of Russia, which is quite far from the capital, Dorzhieva cannot vote for the candidates in Moscow, she added.
(Biswajit Choudhury is in Moscow at the invitation of Russia’s biggest innovation fund, the Skolkovo Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com)