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Pro-Putin party sweeps to election victory but challenges remain for the Kremlin – CNBC

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall during his meeting with the United Russia Party candidates on August 22, 2021, in Moscow, Russia.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, appears to have retained its majority in State Duma elections at the weekend, cementing its control of parliament and bolstering President Vladimir Putin’s power base.

The party, which endorses Putin, has received around 49.7% of the votes so far, according to the latest results from Russia’s Central Election Commission, with 85% of the votes counted.

The party’s nearest rival, the Communist Party, is expected to get around 20% of the vote, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia is seen receiving around 7.5% of the vote. Both are seen as token opposition parties in a country known for restricting political opposition and an independent media.

Voter turnout stood at 45.15%, the election commission noted, down from 47.8% in the last election in 2016.

It was widely expected that the ruling United Russia party would secure a victory in the vote which took place between Sept. 17-19. United Russia has been the dominant party in the country for decades and it enthusiastically supports Putin, although he has run as an independent candidate since 2018.

Nonetheless, the party appears to have seen its share of the vote decline — at the last Duma election in 2016, United Russia won 54.2% of the vote. It comes as more Russians bemoan living standards in the country and amid a crackdown on Kremlin critics, such as jailed activist Alexei Navalny, who remains in prison with groups affiliated to him branded extremist organizations and his supporters barred from running for office.

Critics of the Kremlin say there were multiple examples of electoral irregularities and fraud in this weekend’s election, including cases of ballot stuffing and the obstruction of impartial observation of the voting process. Navalny’s press secretary was among those querying the slow publication of electronic votes in Moscow, where United Russia tends to perform less well than in other regions.

Russia’s Central Election Commission said the voting process had proceeded normally and that it investigates any reports of irregularities. It reported on Sunday that, at 45 polling stations in 14 regions, 7,465 ballots had been invalidated for reasons ranging from the defective printing of ballots to the lid of a portable voting box falling off.

“We are very strict about this, very demanding. In case of the slightest doubt, we recommend our commissions to invalidate the ballots,” Ella Pamfilova, the chairperson of the Central Election Commission of Russia, commented.

Independent Russian vote monitor Golos, which itself had been designated a “foreign agent” by the state ahead of the election, said it had received multiple reports of electoral violations.

Over the three days of voting, Golos said Sunday night: “There was an obvious decline in the level of publicity, openness and transparency of the electoral system.”

Changing demographics

Putin, who has alternated between roles as prime minister and president since 1999, has not said whether he will run for re-election in 2024 presidential election, but this latest parliamentary election is seen as shoring up his power base should he choose to do so.

Close watchers of Russia say the vote is hardly a glowing endorsement of Putin and that the Kremlin faces one key challenge: Russia’s changing demographics.

Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said on Monday that “the story here should be the low turnout – around 47%.”

“So despite all the pressure on state workers to vote the turnout was still embarrassing,” he said, noting that the result was “hardly a vote of confidence in Putin – I would instead argue [it means] a crisis of legitimacy,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chris Weafer, the chief executive officer of Moscow-based strategy consultancy Macro-Advisory, told CNBC on Sunday: “The real issue which scares the Kremlin is the changing demographics.” 

“It means more people born as the Soviet Union ended and since then are becoming a much bigger share of the voter base … This is the generation that travels and uses the internet to a greater extent, on a per capita basis, than people in most other countries,” Weafer said.

He added that this demographic doesn’t buy into the Kremlin’s stability narrative.

“[They] want improved lifestyle, incomes social supports and a better future for themselves and their families,” Weafer said. “The big challenge for President Putin and the so-called Russian ‘elites’ will be how to satisfy those expectations while keeping power. Failure in the former will more severely undermine to latter in the next Presidential term – no matter who that President may be.”