No one, it seems, really cares about Russia’s latest round of parliamentary elections, which are to be held this weekend, on September 18. The ruling regime is content with the status quo and any possible change is a headache for it. Most of the population intends only to vote diligently for the ruling party or the so-called “systemic” or “constructive” opposition. The systemic opposition is afraid of losing the seats it currently holds. The real opposition is in dire straits and has failed to come up with a coordinated strategy.

Yet the elections serve one important purpose for the elite. They are a testing ground for the future contenders in top positions in the pyramid of power that will be formed after the 2018 presidential election.

It is remarkable how little attention the Kremlin is giving to the election campaign. One might expect that the economic crisis, occasional local protests, and other factors would make the outcome of the vote more unpredictable. However, all mainstream public opinion surveys consistently find that the ruling United Russia party is likely to get even more of the 450 seats up for election in the next Duma than the 238 it currently holds.

Even the latest poll by the independent Levada Center confirms this trend. It highlighted the fact that the popularity of United Russia is declining and that overall interest in the elections is low, with 43 percent of respondents saying they are not following the campaign at all. And yet the Levada Center forecasts that the ruling party will get two-thirds of the seats thanks to successes in the single-mandate constituencies.

In a minority of single-seat constituencies there will be genuine exciting contests, but these will have no bearing on the overall outcome, which will be a parliament just as manageable as the current one. 

Most Russians are less enthusiastic about their rulers than they were but still willing to accept the status quo. This is likely to change one day, as Russia faces a new phase of political and socioeconomic destabilization. The country will go through the “five stages of grief” famously formulated by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, but only in reverse: acceptance will be followed by depression, bargaining, anger and finally denial in the form of active protest. 

This is why when faced by a popular election the Kremlin is bracing itself just as aircraft passengers do before an emergency landing to prevent unwelcome shocks. It is vitally important for the Kremlin to preserve the stable framework and the rules of the game, which work in favor of the party of power and its systemic partners.

As a result, Russia faces an interesting situation in which it is less important who exactly gets elected to parliament than who successfully exploits the results. They are a kind of primary for selecting the next generation of the elite in preparation for President Vladimir Putin’s fourth term in 2018 (acting on the assumption that he runs again). These elections are a kind of qualifying round for the president’s fourth-term team. 

Yet there are still a number of unpredictable factors and wild cards in this story. The first is how well United Russia does in the poll. If it wins 300 seats or more—two-thirds of the mandates in the new Duma—that will give the party a constitutional majority and make the next parliament even more conservative than its predecessors. If, on the other hand, the ruling party gets only a bare majority of just over 225 seats, the Kremlin will not be so sanguine and will probably decide that it needs to “draw some conclusions” from the elections and make some changes. 

A bad result would also have the effect of damaging the authority of Prime Minister (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev, who heads United Russia’s party list. The general opinion in the elite is that the 2018 presidential elections will also be the moment for Russia to have a new prime minister.

The third wild card is whether the result persuades the Kremlin to bring forward the next presidential election from March 2018 to September 2017. Oil prices are stagnant, living standards are deteriorating, and there are no resources for replenishing Russia’s fiscal reserves—all of which pushes down the president’s popularity. The argument is that in September 2017 Putin would be more likely to get 60 percent of the vote, but in March 2018 he could be forced to compete in a second round of voting against another candidate: a scenario that would be disastrous for the Kremlin.

The fourth factor is how the Duma elections reshuffle the make-up of the elite. Two trends have developed recently: political players are being replaced by technocratic functionaries, and strongmen and generals are gaining influence. The election of a more conservative and politically homogenous parliament could further exacerbate these two developments. 

The new parliament may end up being more deeply integrated into Russia’s power vertical. It would change from an undervalued appendage in the power structure into a launching pad for ambitious officials, a place where yesterday’s bureaucrat or worker can make a bid to join the new Putin elite. This is more likely when loyalty is deemed more valuable than competence.

Putin recently told interviewers from Bloomberg that he needed to first see the results of the parliamentary elections before deciding to run for another presidential term. In other words: the better United Russia does, the easier it will be for Putin to justify running again. 

The tone of his response—that it’s “premature” to talk about whether he will run in 2018—suggests that Putin is not eager to move the presidential election forward. Besides, rescheduling it would not be his style and might be seen as an admission of weakness. This is probably why the president will try to put a more optimistic and positive spin even on relatively poor results for United Russia (anything under 45 percent) in Sunday’s Duma election. 

This all fits with the main political trend of the day in Russia: the system is trying to consolidate itself and to “de-politicize” itself in the sense of cutting down on contests for power and influence within its labyrinthine administrative framework. Yesterday’s managers and politicians are being replaced by “guards” who are the protectors of the system. 

So these Duma elections kiss goodbye to an era of “managed competition” between different elite politicians. The power vertical is being stripped of politics and left only to Putin and those who protect Putin’s system. This means that even a major clearing out and reshuffle of top positions will lead only to the calcification of the regime rather than to its transformation. 

This process of retrenching the elite will be tested by the economic crisis, by the slow moral exhaustion of the regime, and by the falling popularity of its leaders. In the end, either old-style politics will triumph over Putin or Putin will triumph over politics. As time goes by, a peaceful coexistence between the two looks less and less likely.