How Putin plans to create a semblance of democracy while undermining opposition parties

6 mins read

The next regional elections in Russia take place in September. In advance of that date, and the federal elections next year, the Russian Justice Ministry has been quickly approving a host of new parties. But this isn’t a sign of real democracy in action inside Russia. On the contrary, this is Putin’s attempt to create a semblance of democracy while actually setting up spoiler parties designed to divide the opposition.

Last month, Russia’s Justice Ministry registered four new political parties, giving them the right to take part in scheduled regional elections in September and potentially in next year’s national parliamentary vote as well. All the new groups fulfilled the cumbersome requirements for registration in record time — even though most of the country remains under strict quarantine measures. Registration officials voiced no concerns.

Neither the ease nor the speed should give cause for surprise: As reported in Russian media, the new parties — like most of the nearly 50 political parties now on the register — were created with the political blessing of the government.

This Russian site reports that nearly 40 new parties have been approved in the past year. Many of them have generic names making it difficult to even tell them apart.

Over the past year, the Ministry of Justice registered information on 39 organizing committees of new parties, with 17 of them appearing in September – December 2019, and another four in January 2020…

According to the Ministry of Justice, the names of the seven organizing committees contain the words “people” and “justice”: “Good for the people”, Party of the people, “We are from the people”, Union of Fair Forces of Russia, etc.

While the ballot is filling up with new parties that have little or not support, actual opposition parties have been denied the right to appear on the ballot:

Unlike, say, the Cossack Party or the Party of Gardeners, which had no trouble fulfilling the registration requirements, the party led by anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny — one of Russia’s most prominent opposition figures, who received nearly 30 percent of the vote when he ran for Moscow mayor in 2013 — was denied registration by the Justice Ministry a total of nine times.

The goal of all of this chicanery is to avoid the kind of humiliation Putin’s United Russia party suffered last year. That’s when elections in Moscow seemed to be shaping up as a defeat for Putin. Rather than take the risk, the government disqualified the popular opposition candidates. There were protests but so long as his party won the election, what did Putin care. And that’s when it all went horribly wrong:

It was not possible to present a real alternative or create genuine competition in the 2019 Moscow election. So opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation proposed a tactic they referred to as “smart voting.” The idea was to humiliate pro-regime candidates by backing placeholders from other registered parties who were placed on the ballot to create the semblance of choice. And this is precisely what Muscovites did on Sunday — with spectacular results.

Of the 45 seats in the Moscow Duma, 20 were won by opponents of pro-government candidates…

Perhaps the most comical result came from the north side of Moscow. The opposition candidate in District 3 was Alexander Soloviev who, like others, had been barred from the ballot and arrested. Among his opponents was another man named Alexander Soloviev, a spoiler nominated by one of the smaller registered parties — an engineer with no apparent interest in politics who had not met with voters, held any campaign events or even made an appearance in the district.

Days before the election, the opposition backed the spoiler as a tactical move against United Russia — and he cruised to victory without as much as lifting a finger. “Guys, you forgot to remove a spoiler you put there yourselves — and you lost even to him,” the “real” Soloviev wrote from his jail cell.

That is just spectacular. But you can see why Putin doesn’t want to see a repeat, either this year or next. So his Justice Ministry is working overtime to prevent that. Hopefully the opposition can continue to find new ways to humiliate Putin even if they can’t beat him at the ballot box because they aren’t allowed to compete.

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