Election fraud and political apathy lay just behind the veil of democracy at the Russian parliamentary polls. Long term, the legitimacy of the entire Russian system is in question, writes Ingo Mannteufel.
The official result of Russia's parliamentary election on Sunday comes as no surprise: President Vladimir Putin's United Russia now claims a two-thirds majority in the Duma - likely a foregone conclusion long since ensured by the Kremlin's Cabinet. Only three other parties, which, to all intents and purposes, are also controlled by the Kremlin, made it into the Duma.
Victory in parliament comes without the mass protests of five years ago. Then, thousands of Russians took to the freezing streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg to express their displeasure at clear election fraud and manipulation.
Despite video and other evidence of fraud, such as piles of ballots stuffed in urns, there was no such popular mobilization this time. A campaign of repression between the previous election in 2011 and now has ushered in a mood of political apathy. Opponents of United Russia stood no serious chance. That allowed the Kremlin to spruce up its democratic image, for one thing by lowering the bar a party needs to cross to enter parliament from 7 to 5 percent.
The meaningless election campaign played on fears of alleged outside influence and served the sole purpose of convincing voters that Putin's party was the only choice.
Voter turnout of around 48 percent is evidence of the depoliticization of Russian society. It was 60 percent in 2011, though both figures were likely doctored.
Apathy as stabilizing force
Low voter turnout in Russia is not the same as comparable numbers in democratic countries. In Russia, military personnel and state employees are more or less compelled to vote. It is difficult to escape the pressure, especially outside major cities.
Russians who are somewhat more financially independent of state structures can better avoid voting. They live almost entirely in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, where voter turnout was far below the official national average of 48 percent. On election night itself, turnout there was even announced at less than 20 percent, then increased overnight, perhaps as the result of additional ballots being counted.
When even the official and likely polished numbers are barely one-third of eligible voters in the big cities, political apathy is indeed pronounced and widespread.
Legitimacy in doubt
This apathy serves the Kremlin's interests at the moment. It has the parliamentary composition it desires. However, its legitimacy rests on a foundation built on sand, given that less than half of Russians nationwide, and so few urban Russians, turned out to vote, despite many being under pressure to do so.
It comes as no surprise on the day after the election that the Kremlin again wants to bring together all state intelligence and security agencies under a single, all-powerful “Ministry of Security” umbrella, akin to the KGB.