One thing is clear before voting has even begun: When Russian polling stations close Sunday evening, politics in the country will remain unchanged. For the Duma, Russia's parliament, does not dictate policy - the Kremlin does. In other words, President Vladimir Putin and his powerful presidential administration call the shots.
The Russian constitution, which gives far-reaching powers to the executive, guarantees that the situation remains so. And since being elected to office some 16 years ago, Vladimir Putin has continuously stripped the Duma of its independence. Russian critics have long made fun of the Duma and dubbed it the "mad printer" because it simply spits out any law that the Kremlin tells it to.
Updated voting laws mask ruling party's dominance
The Kremlin's main instrument in the Duma remains the powerful party United Russia, which is run by Dmitry Medvedev, head of government and Putin confidant. There is no doubt that United Russia, which is again profiting from all kinds of media and administrative favors, will continue to enjoy a majority in the Duma, even if the first exit polls on Sunday will likely give no hint of its dominance.
The reason for that phenomenon is a change in voting rules: 225 of the Duma's 450 seats will be distributed according to representative voting percentages along party lists. And these numbers are the only ones that exit polls will point to on Sunday.
The other 225 seats will be awarded to candidates who win majorities in individual voting districts. It is safe to say that United Russia representatives, or others from Putin's All-Russia People's Front, will come out on top. It is also certain that the great majority of those victorious representatives will ultimately join up with the United Russia bloc in the Duma, thus cementing the party's overwhelming majority.
Memories of East Germany
It must also not be forgotten that the other three political parties in the Duma - the Communist Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's rightwing populist LDPR, and A Just Russia - are also core components of Vladimir Putin's system of rule. From a German point of view, the three seem reminiscent of the old East German "block parties." They lend the Russian political system the outward appearance of plurality, but in fact they are all controlled by the Kremlin.
For this reason, it is very difficult speak of truly free and fair elections in Russia. Yet, unlike in 2011, there is no sign that there will be any kind of protest vote. Heavy-handed crackdowns on the opposition over the last several years have driven Putin critics out of the country or into political apathy.
Anodyne election campaign
The substanceless, quiet election campaign was also designed to lull voters rather than inspire them. But Russia's politics of aggression toward Ukraine, dressed up in a veil of patriotism, and its media-stoked confrontation with the West have also had another effect: Currently, Russian society seems to be dominated by a mix of chauvinism, a feeling of endangerment, and a lack of political interest, all of which will likely result in very low voter turnout.
There is one interesting aspect to the election though: Two Kremlin-critical parties - Yabloko and PARNAS - were also allowed to participate. If they manage to win 3 percent or more of the vote they will be eligible to receive state funding to help finance their campaigns. And if they gain 5 percent or more, they would actually win seats in the Duma. But one should not make the mistake of overstating the significance that this would have. For no matter how seats in the Duma are awarded on Sunday - the Kremlin still has a firm grasp on Russia's political system.
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