The rapid succession of Russian elections—occurring twice a year in recent years—reminds one of see-saws and roller-coasters, with a spring remission followed by an autumn relapse. During the spring 2009 remission, elections were relatively honest (if not fair). In the autumn 2009 relapse, they were neither honest nor fair. A further remission followed in the spring of 2010 and a relapse came again in autumn. Experts predict that the elections on March 13 will be better than those of last autumn, but worse than the ones held last spring.

The current round of elections is particularly important because it is the last one before those for the State Duma and the subsequent presidential election. It is, therefore, an opportunity—both for the Kremlin and for political parties—to synchronize their watches, test and evaluate their strategies, and make the necessary adjustments in their plans for the big Duma campaign.

As is the case when elections fall on a Single Voting Day, the forthcoming elections will affect some 70 regions. Some will involve by-elections for vacant seats, others will include contests for municipal council seats, and others still will elect mayors and members of legislative chambers. The key campaigns contest seats in regional parliaments. These will take place in twelve regions, including three republics (Adyghe, Dagestan, and Komi), two autonomous districts (Chukotka and Khanty-Mansiisk), and seven regions: Kaliningrad, Tver, Kirov, Nizhny Novgorod, Kursk, Tambov, and Orenburg. The Stavropol territory and the Novosibirsk region, with elections across all cities and districts, are also quite important. In addition, about ten major regional centers will elect city chambers of deputies.

This will also be the first single voting day without any mayoral contests in capital cities. In an attempt to strengthen the “power vertical,” the ruling party eliminated direct mayoral elections in around 20 regional capitals during the last year alone. The surviving elected mayors are serving out their final days. For example, in the current campaign, the mayor of Vladivostok was removed by a gubernatorial decree; the idea of adopting a city manager model for that city is now under discussion. 

Only the four major parties with seats in the State Duma are fully represented in the regional parliament elections. The Russian Patriots—a party whose main role is to act as a “spoiler” with regard to Just Russia and the Communist Party (CPRF)—have fielded candidates in six regions. Yabloko has candidates in two regions, and The Right Cause in one.

United Russia’s election goal is to secure an absolute majority and the highest possible number of seats; the CPRF aims to be the main opposition party, while the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Just Russia are struggling to survive as Duma parties; the latter is the main target of administrative assaults.

Steam Engines and Personality Politics

As a result of many years with almost no public politics, all of the parties are suffering from a lack of distinctive, recognizable personalities at the top of their candidate lists. In the past, United Russia used governors as “steam engines” on whose trains candidates with a lower profile could be elected to regional parliaments. This has become more problematic following the large-scale replacement of governors who are genuine politicians with those who are merely administrators. On Sunday, “steam engine” governors are standing in only seven of twelve regions. At the same time, United Russia has not found some other vivid politicians instead of governors. (Incidentally, LDPR—which has traditionally faced similar problems—has placed Vladimir Zhirinovsky at the top of its party lists in ten of the twelve regions.)

In the absence of small “steam engines,” it has proven necessary to roll out the big gun. For the first time the “national leader” and United Russia Chairman Vladimir Putin is taking an active role in a regional campaign. He has been visiting election regions and holding meetings with professional groups, party activists, and the general public. In recent weeks, he has paid visits to the regions of Orenburg (on January 27), Kirov (February 3), Kaliningrad (February 23), and Tambov (March 2). If the main purpose of Putin’s visits is to use the prime minister’s personal weight to shore up the regions lacking a strong gubernatorial presence, the Kursk and Tver regions are likely to be next on his itinerary.

The Curse of Administrative Resources

Data published by the Central Electoral Committee show that, of the 55,700 candidates standing for election, by far the largest number—22,400 candidates—are independents. 20,500 candidates are fielded by United Russia, contesting 99.6 percent of all seats. This is followed, after a large gap, by the remaining six parties.

The picture changes dramatically when one looks at candidates who have been refused registration. Of the total 7.8 percent (4,400) of candidates not registered, 45 percent were fielded by Yabloko, 20 percent by Russian Patriots, and 14.6 percent were independents. About 5-6 percent each had been put forward by LDPR, Just Russia, and CPRF, and 0.8 percent by United Russia.

The outcomes of the lottery that determines the order in which individual parties appear on the ballots illustrates the power of so-called “administrative resources”—the use of governmental privilege to influence election results. In every past election, United Russia has defied the theory of probability. This time, it has drawn the first slot in six of the twelve regional parliament campaigns. Just Russia and Russian Patriots have drawn three top slots each; CPRF, LDPR, Yabloko, and the Right Cause have not drawn a single top slot.

Sunday’s elections will undoubtedly present the government with a few nasty surprises. This is likely to happen in the rebellious Kaliningrad region; in the Khanty-Mansiisk district, where there have been local conflicts with the new regional government; and in Vladimir and a number of other cities. Nevertheless, United Russia is likely to meet most of its targets.

December’s Parliamentary Elections: Not So Straightforward

However, all of this is less important than what happens with the Duma parliamentary elections in December and the presidential election next March.

As far as the Duma elections go, the latest data available indicates that United Russia will win 45-50 percent of the vote in the State Duma elections, which—thanks to a 7 percent voting threshold—will translate into 65-70 percent of the seats. It would seem, therefore, that unless something extraordinary happens, United Russia will again enjoy a constitutional majority in the next Duma.

Things, however, are not so straightforward.

First, nationwide surveys and the sociologists who conduct them have not taken into consideration major shifts since the last elections in two types of regions. One group is those regions where the dismissal of a heavyweight governor resulted in the dismantling of the political machinery—as is the case in Moscow, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, and the Rostov region, which between them provided United Russia with nearly a fifth of all of its votes. The other group is regions with a sharp rise in negative attitudes toward authorities (this, again, includes Moscow as well as the Kaliningrad, Sverdlovsk, and Irkutsk regions, Kamchatka, and the Maritime Territory, which accounted for one-seventh of the party’s vote).

In all of these regions support for United Russia has sagged substantially. Of particular significance is Moscow, a city that according to recent polls has been steadily turning from one of the most conformist regions in the country into the capital of electoral protest, its role in the perestroika years.

Second, even if United Russia’s losses are insignificant, a decline in its support in Moscow and a number of major centers will be humiliating for the “party of power.” Even in last autumn’s elections, United Russia’s results in a number of centers—such as Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Izhevsk—barely exceeded 40 percent.

Presidential Elections & Party Politics

The March 2012 elections present a different set of dynamics. On the one hand, they will not pose any serious problem for the chosen Kremlin candidate. On the other, they will usher in the beginning of a new political era. The inevitable overhaul of social policy, including the abandonment of many expensive social benefits—already a huge strain on the budget but retained because of the upcoming elections—will bring about a major change in the pattern of relations between the government and the people.

In this new scenario, the role of parties will also have to increase significantly. Currently, major parties are essentially electoral vehicles, serving as tools for ensuring government control over parliaments and chambers of deputies. After the 2012 elections they will instead be required to function as mechanisms of cooperation between citizens and the government.

In their current form, they are totally unsuited to play this new role, and the Kremlin—which tends to tackle each problem on an ad-hoc basis—has not yet done anything to prepare for this. Creating a facilitator party that will command authority and confidence takes a lot longer than creating a simple election vehicle. And when the Kremlin finally turns its attention to this issue, it may just find itself short on time.

The current campaign is of course indicative of a wider crisis in the electoral system. Elections in Russia no longer dictate agendas or serve as platforms for finessing programs. They do not provide much feedback between the citizens and the regime, nor do they offer serious alternatives with respect to public policies or training grounds for politicians. They do not even play the role of a safety valve for letting off steam. And as administrative control over elections increases, the elections become less able to fulfill their one remaining role: legitimizing the regime.

The party system is also in deep crisis. Here the problem is not so much the individual parties as the entire party architecture, which has become politically as well as morally obsolete.

This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.