On June 16, at the Kremlin’s initiative, the Constitutional Legislation and State Development Committee of the State Duma recommended the adoption of a bill rescheduling the 2016 parliamentary elections from December to September. Communist opposition to this draft seems hardly likely to prevent this change from being implemented. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the underlying reasons of yet another Kremlin initiative.

 

At the press conference on June 15, Duma chairman Sergei Naryshkin claimed that rescheduling of the 2016 Duma elections was not a political issue. Photo: TASS

 

Kremlin consideration of the idea of holding early parliamentary elections became known in May. Several State Duma deputies told RBC that they were “informed by chamber leaders” about the possible rescheduling of the election date. This is yet another example of how politically significant decisions are made in today’s Russia: State Duma leaders are informed of the decision, and they in turn notify deputies who accept it as a given and adopt a necessary law.

In essence, this initiative would reschedule parliamentary elections to Russia’s nationwide Election Day (the second Sunday of September), combining them with regional and municipal elections. The introduction of a nationwide day for local elections seems to be a reasonable idea, because it allows for easier coordination of and control over electoral campaigns; however, even State Duma deputies themselves are not sure what the point of rescheduling the federal elections to an earlier date is. Officially, according to commentary provided by State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin to Interfax, parliamentary elections should be held in September “so that the same deputies who adopt the 2017 budget could oversee its implementation.” This is a rather weak argument, since the State Duma has only limited involvement in discussion of the country’s main document. Besides, even if one follows that logic, it is absolutely unclear why new lawmakers, who will have had nothing to do with the drafting of the 2017 budget, have to be responsible for something discussed by the previous convocation of the State Duma.

However, there is no point in looking for any rationality here, since the aforementioned reason is but a formal one.

The real reasons for such legislation are undoubtedly political. Thus, according to an RBC source, if the elections are held early, there will be practically no election campaigns, since they will have to be conducted during the summer months, which will seriously reduce the chances of the opposition parties and their candidates.

It is worth reminding readers that the outcome of the previous parliamentary elections came as a shock to both the opposition and the current government. In December 2011, Putin’s Russia witnessed mass meetings and marches on an unprecedented scale against election fraud in polling places. The wave of protest brought almost 100,000 people to Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue. Moreover, Russian opposition leaders did not even put much effort into mobilizing the population. This was an unexpected, self-organized, and spontaneous protest that showed that a mature and responsible civil society is forming in large Russian cities despite the social, economic, and political challenges they face.

This protest activity resulted in the development by the Kremlin of a sort of "December complex"—that is, the fear that opposition forces might use the forthcoming elections to achieve the same success they did five years ago. There are also other reasons for concern. According to an RBC source, by September, Russians will not have been able to fully experience the consequences of the current social and economic crisis. Many will have just returned from the summer holidays and will not be able to realize how their financial situation has changed, whereas by the end of the year, it may have deteriorated considerably.

Early elections cannot protect the government against new protest rallies or other opposition activity. Next fall, the real level of the population’s support for the current government—not the election date—will be of critical importance to the Kremlin.

In any case, the Kremlin decided that the sooner the elections are held, the better. The only challenge left to them consisted in finding a legal basis to change the legislation. According to the Russian Constitution, the current convocation of the State Duma has to last a full five-year term. If the elections are rescheduled for September, lawmakers will have to step down from office before their current term ends. The president, however, has no reasonable basis for an early dissolution of Parliament. But in the end, the government found a way. According to a Vedomosti source from the United Russia Party, the constitutional provision on the five-year term does not specify that five years is exactly five times 365 days; instead, a “five-year term” can mean “about five years” or “five years, give or take a few months.” Consequently, a law on holding parliamentary elections on the country’s nationwide election day can be adopted without any need to introduce amendments to the Constitution.

It is worth noting that observers and experts are already used to the Kremlin’s free interpretation of Russian legislation. Over the last five years, legal standards have lost their value in Russia. There is no doubt that yet again, there will be no difficulties with the adoption of a new law. There is one problem, however: Communists oppose the rescheduling of the elections to September and suggest holding them in October instead. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has to buy time for its fall electoral campaign, because the reduction of the campaign season’s length plays into the hands of the ruling party, which commands significant administrative resources. Communists are threatening the Kremlin with an appeal to the Constitutional Court. The Kremlin does not seem concerned by this challenge, since it realizes that the Constitutional Court will only make a decision that is politically “sensible.” However, the Kremlin does need a “consolidated position of all caucuses,” and the Communists’ uncooperative attitude prevents it from achieving total social and political harmony on this issue.

A source close to State Duma leaders told Vedomosti that “there will be no compromise with Communists,” and that the elections will be held in September. “In order for us to agree, we need to understand why we are doing this: there should be some new documents, some new information that is yet unknown to us, or a considerable reduction in spending,” the source continued. “However, if deputies are paid ‘golden parachutes,’ which is currently being discussed, economizing will be necessary, since they will become more expensive than ordinary elections.”

What appears most curious are the Kremlin’s efforts to achieve such an insignificant change now, when it would make much more sense to push such a decision through unexpectedly: then, at least, the opposition would be deprived of the possibility of getting ready for the electoral campaigns. The Kremlin is definitely taking risks by making a constitutionally questionable decision and pushing it through the State Duma despite the opposition of the Communist Party.

However, on June 11, the bill was officially introduced to the State Duma. It was passed at first reading on June 19. According to Vice-Speaker Igor Lebedev, moving the elections to the third Sunday of September is another option being discussed. However, Communists remain categorically opposed to the initiative.

The role of the systemic opposition in this case should not be understated: despite an established system of relations between the government and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the latter remains the only functional opposition party with its own electorate in the country. Nevertheless, early elections cannot protect the government against new protest rallies or other opposition activity. Next fall, the real level of the population’s support for the current government—not the election date—will be of critical importance to the Kremlin: if the former diminishes considerably, the population will find a way to demonstrate its frustration.

If you are interested in getting a rare insight into what Russia is really about; what the Russian government and the Russian people are really thinking; what the Russian expert community is really discussing; subscribe to our newsletter here or shoot us an email at info@imrussia.org.

Truly yours,

IMR team

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.