Putin's party floundering but still expected to win elections

Authorities dangle carrots to get Russians to vote as critics note sidelining of opponents

MOSCOW • Twenty apartments! A hundred cars! Tens of thousands in gift certificates! These are just some of the prizes up for grabs for Russians later this week. All they have to do is vote.

After a year that saw a historic crackdown on the opposition and with President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party floundering in the polls, the authorities are doing what they can to drum up interest in parliamentary elections taking place over three days from Friday.

Signs around the capital Moscow are touting "a million prizes" for voters who cast electronic ballots in the election, which looks set to hand United Russia another majority despite its unpopularity.

With top Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny in jail and other opponents sidelined, critics say the vote is little more than a rubber-stamping of Mr Putin's allies.

Campaigning has been lacklustre, with debates consigned to late-night television slots and many voters in Moscow showing little enthusiasm.

"We have no real choice, we all know it and we all see it," said Mr Grigory Matveyev, a 29-year-old theatre lighting technician. "I've been many times (to vote) but it's nothing but a farce."

The vote will see lawmakers elected to the 450-member Lower House State Duma, where United Russia currently holds 334 seats, and to several local legislatures.

The loyalist "A Just Russia" party as well as the Communists and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party - both nominally opposition parties that tend not to criticise President Putin - hold nearly all the other seats.

Under normal circumstances, United Russia should be vulnerable. Russians' living standards have dropped steadily over the past decade and were hit again by an economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. Disposable incomes are down 10 per cent since 2013 and prices are on the rise, with inflation hitting 6.7 per cent in August.

Dogged by allegations of corruption - Navalny has dubbed it the "Party of Crooks and Thieves" - United Russia has become a favourite target of frustrations.

Recent surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed fewer than 30 per cent of Russians planning to vote for the party, down from the 40 per cent to 45 per cent in the weeks ahead of the last parliamentary election in 2016.

But United Russia is widely expected to retain its two-thirds majority in the Duma, enough to change the Constitution as it did last year with reforms allowing Mr Putin to extend his rule to 2036.

For Mr Leonid Volkov, a key aide to Navalny, the reason is simple: "This is not an election."

"They excluded anyone from the race, they made it impossible for other candidates to participate... it is not a competitive election, by design," Mr Volkov, who lives in exile, told Agence France-Presse.

Mr Putin - whose popularity remains high with approval ratings of 60 per cent to 65 per cent - has looked to boost United Russia's chances, ordering cash handouts of 10,000 rubles (S$186) to pensioners and 15,000 rubles to police and soldiers ahead of the vote.

His supporters say confidence in the President - still seen by many as a steady hand after the chaos of the 1990s - will help push United Russia over the top.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'Putin's party floundering but still expected to win elections'. Subscribe