Last weekend, Russia held elections for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. The official results showed the ruling United Russia party won with 49.8 percent of the vote.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov on the process:
“The competitiveness, openness, and honest of the elections were and are the most important thing for the president.”
That is false.
As with previous major elections in the country, this year’s Duma elections were marked by reports of irregularities. But this year, ruling authorities carried out an unprecedented crackdown against opposition parties and activists, and even threatened tech giants Google and Apple.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which monitors elections worldwide, did not send an election monitoring mission to Russia to observe the vote.
Although Russian authorities invited the group, they limited it to 60 observers for the whole country, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. That was far short of the 500 observers the monitoring group said would be necessary.
The OSCE said Russia “did not offer sufficient clarification as to why the limitations were needed to prevent the spread of the virus when other preventative measures could be taken.”
The Russian independent election monitoring group Golos, which the Kremlin has declared a “foreign agent,” said election was deeply flawed:
“Regretfully, in its primary assessment of the current elections, Golos movement has to state that it cannot consider them genuinely free and fully compliant neither with the Constitution and legislation of the Russian Federation nor with the international electoral standards. The results are obtained in an unfree and unequal electoral campaign, while the passive electoral rights of a significant number of citizens were limited. This prevents us from asserting that the real will of voters was articulated in a free electoral campaign.“
Restrictive election laws severely limited who could run for Duma seats. One new regulation banned anyone associated with “extremist” organizations.
In June, for example, Russia designated Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation an “extremist” organization, thereby barring the candidacy of anyone affiliated or associated with the group.
Navalny, one of the most vocal political opponents of Putin and his United Russia party, survived a poisoning attempt last year only to be arrested and jailed after he returned to Russia from Germany.
With its leader effectively silenced, Navalny’s team promoted a program called Smart Voting – urging Russians to vote for candidates from opposition parties to strategically oust United Russia politicians.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation created an app to help voters follow the strategy. But on September 17, Apple and Google deleted the app from their stores after legal threats from the Russian government.
The Duma elections also featured more traditional ballot rigging. In one example, cameras at polling stations recorded poll workers dumping stacks of ballots into ballot boxes. And Golos poll monitors were barred from some polling places.
Thanks to the pandemic, major cities like the capital of Moscow featured “e-voting.” The independent Moscow Times newspaper reported on September 20 that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation rejected the legitimacy of e-voting after several of its favored candidates saw their leads reversed when e-votes were counted.
Before the election, authorities said e-voting results would be made public after polls closed September 19, the last day of voting. But when that moment arrived, the results were delayed several times.
The day after the polls closed, Russian Central Election Commission chairperson Ella Pamfilova reported that “no major irregularities were recorded during the vote,” according to the Russian state-owned TASS news agency.
TASS reported that “numerous international observers pointed out that the election process was well-organized and transparent.” However, it did not say who these observers were or explain how they made that assessment.
TASS said results were “canceled” at three polling stations, two on the Russian mainland and a third in Russian-occupied Crimea. TASS also alleged there were “unprecedented” cyberattacks against the election commission’s website and e-voting system.
Western officials have criticized the Duma elections. “What we have seen in the run-up to these elections was an atmosphere of intimidation of all the critical independent voices,” said European Union foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano.
The U.S. State Department said voting took place “under conditions not conducive to free and fair elections.” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry declared the results from occupied Crimea invalid. Ukraine also rejected Russian voting in Crimea and illegally occupied parts of its eastern Donbas region.
The day after the elections were over, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked voters and the poll workers, noting the “high” official turnout of 51 percent compared to the last elections’ 47 percent turnout in 2016. United Russia is expected to have a two-thirds majority in the 450-seat State Duma.