Russian lower house poll distorted into a tool to showcase Putin’s rule

Sputnik/Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Kremlin via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with members of the United Russia party in Moscow, Russia August 22, 2021.

In no way can it possibly be said that a free and fair election has been held. Wasn’t the election used only as a tool for Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify his long-term rule and further solidify his administration’s political power base?

The Putin administration’s ruling party, United Russia, has won an overwhelming victory in the 450-seat State Duma lower house of parliament. Although the number of seats won this time did not reach the 334 it held before the election, the ruling party has reportedly secured more than the 300 seats needed for it to single-handedly revise the Constitution.

That the ruling party would win was evident before the election. This is because the administration oppressed those who are critical of it with no concern for how its actions are perceived, and opposing candidates were excluded.

Alexei Navalny, an opposition movement leader, continues to be jailed. His aides and supporters were not able to run in the election because related organizations have been designated as “extremist organizations.” The candidacies of people critical of the administration were also greatly limited.

Navalny’s internet campaign calling on people to vote for candidates from non-ruling parties was also curbed. Independent media outlets have been designated as “foreign agents” and have been barred from reporting on the election.

The Communist Party and other parties, which won seats separately from the ruling party, are regarded as “co-opted opposition parties” that allow Putin’s regime to continue. The State Duma has become an institution that supports the regime by enabling Putin to continue his long-term administration and suppress opposition forces through constitutional amendments.

It can be said that the original role of the State Duma in checking the president’s power through legislation and approving the appointment of the prime minister, among other functions, has long been lost.

Putin has succeeded in creating an environment in which he can establish a system for lifetime rule by maintaining his leadership even after his current term as president expires in 2024. But, he should look at the public dissatisfaction that has not been reflected in the election results.

Before the election, the ruling party’s approval rating was at an all-time low of less than 30%. Putin’s own approval rating had also fallen from about 80% in the past to about 60%. Sporadic protests have exposed a sense of stagnation and dissatisfaction with the economic slump under his long-term rule.

Prior to the election, the administration provided one-off payments to pensioners and military and security personnel. This can be seen as a sign of Putin’s urgent sense that he will not be able to stop the decline in public support unless he comes up with pork-barrel policies.

The Putin administration has been building up its claims against Japan, seeking to play up “war responsibility” regarding World War II and to justify the illegal occupation of the northern territories. Putin seems to escalate his hard-line stance toward other countries as a way to promote the image of a strong Russia to the public.

Japan must clearly refute Russia’s claims and be on guard against allowing Putin to seize the initiative.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 22, 2021.