Moscow celebrated its 869th birthday last weekend. The city splashed out 580 million rubles ($8.9 million) for the event, known as Moscow City Day.
Muscovites had never seen such a show for the occasion, which cost twice as much as this year's Victory Day to commemorate the victory over Nazi Germany, the most important date in the Russian political calendar. Few doubted what the party was about: the impending Duma election.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has been working hard all summer to make the capital glitter for Sunday's parliamentary election, the first nationwide vote since the Kremlin annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. During President Vladimir Putin's 17 years in power, Russians have grown used to predictable elections. And this one will be no exception, with a clear victory for Putin’s United Russia party. Russians have dubbed it their “most boring” in history.
Still, the election has symbolic importance for Russian authorities. The last time the country held a parliamentary election, in 2011, Moscow erupted in massive anti-Putin demonstrations over widespread charges of vote-rigging. Since then, the Kremlin has cracked down hard, which has forced the protest leadership underground. This time, the Kremlin has sought to make sure there will be no street protests – yet is determined for the vote to look squeaky clean.
The man in charge of this task is Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, the Kremlin's chief election manager since the president’s 2012 re-election. Volodin has been busy telling the cameras all summer that this will be the cleanest vote in Russian history.
Russian officials were interested in making this election somewhat freer since April, when the Kremlin appointed former human-rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova as head of its electoral committee. As a concession to the protesters, she replaced Putin’s ally Vladimir Churov, whom the opposition had accused of overseeing the 2011 election fraud.
In another sign of confidence, the Kremlin even allowed Putin's nemesis Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon who spent a decade in a Siberian prison, to finance 18 candidates as part of his Open Russia initiative. In a scene unimaginable just a few months ago, Russians even saw their prime-minister-turned-opposition-leader Mikhail Kasyanov take part in a live debate on state television.
But allowing Alexey Navalny, Russia's most famous oppositionist, to take part in the vote proved a step too far for the Kremlin. He was banned from registering his party.
But neither Khodorkovsky's nor Kasyanov's candidates are likely to enter the Duma. In the run-up to the vote, the liberal opposition has been divided by scandals and infighting. It has also failed to put forward new faces as party leaders, which has led many Russians to experience deja vu 1990s. The only party denouncing the Crimean annexation that has any chance (albeit a slim one) of entering parliament is socio-liberal Yabloko, led by Yeltsin-era Grigory Yavlinsky.
The Kremlin’s propaganda has made collecting reliable information on Putin’s approval rating impossible. Officially, it has skyrocketed during the stand-off with the West. His party United Russia, meanwhile, is feeling the effects of Russia's deep recession. With nothing to replace the “Crimean effect” -- the now-waning euphoria over the annexation – the party's ratings have been falling. According to the Levada Center, Russia's only independent pollster, its ratings have fallen from 39 percent to 31 percent in August. Even reporting these falling ratings could lead to the pollster being closed. Just 13 days before the election, the Justice Ministry registered the research center as a “foreign agent.”
The Kremlin's strategists foresaw the party's drop in popularity and responded by changing the rules of the game. This year, Russia will deploy an electoral system it has not used since 2003. Half the Duma's 450 seats will be chosen from party lists, where party approval ratings matter. The other half will be chosen in single-member constituencies, in the same way parliamentary elections were held between 1993 and 2003.
The Kremlin scrapped the single-member constituencies in 2007 on the assumption that parliamentarians elected through them would be harder to control. During an economic boom in the mid-2000s, United Russia excelled through party-list voting. But in 2011, it performed poorly and almost lost its majority.
Returning to the old electoral system is another step to avoid that 2011 scenario, to United Russia’s benefit. Many of the independent candidates will disguise their loyalty to the party, due to its sinking popularity, but will join it once elected.
The rest of the main parties running – the “systemic opposition” in place only to make the Duma look pluralistic – all support Putin. This opposition is made up of three parties: the ultra-nationalists, led by veteran politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky; the communists, led by Gennady Zyuganov, and Spravedlivaya Rossiya (Just Russia), led by the loyal bureaucrat Sergei Mironov. For the first time, Zhirinovsky's nationalists are expected to overtake the communists as Russia's second strongest party. All are expected to break the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.
For Putin and his ruling party, it makes no difference which of these parties enter the Duma. The election is being held for one reason alone: to put on a show of consensus.