Election fraud allegations will erode Putin’s legitimacy

United Russia has retained supermajority in the State Duma at the price of growing public discontent with the Kremlin.

Members of a local election commission count ballots at a polling station inside Kazansky railway terminal after polls closed during the parliamentary election in Moscow on September 19, 2021 [Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina]

Russia held its legislative elections over three days between September 17 and 19, with the ruling United Russia party winning 324 seats in the 450-seat State Duma. Many observers have found the outcome of the vote messy and confusing and this is because it was messy and confusing by design.

The elections were marred by accusations of deception, manipulation and outright fraud, which the opposition claims allowed the Kremlin to declare victory, despite declining public support for United Russia. Indeed, this victory comes at the cost of legitimacy.

Of course, this election was in no way similar to what people call “elections” in democratic countries. Polls in Russia are hardly “free” as true opposition forces are not allowed to register parties; the ones that are permitted to do so are controlled to a varying extent by the presidential administration.

The top figure of what observers call “non-systemic opposition”, Alexey Navalny, has made multiple attempts to register a party since 2012, but has been refused every single time. Despite his exclusion from official party politics, he managed to grow and nurture the country’s largest and most efficient opposition network, becoming the de facto main political rival of President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny is currently serving a jail sentence after barely surviving a poisoning with a nerve agent, which was blamed on Russian secret services by open-source investigators at the UK-based Bellingcat collective. But this kind of treatment by the Kremlin only reaffirms his status of Putin’s enemy number one.

Navalny’s allies, many of whom have been forced to flee the country, devised a strategy of voter mobilisation with the aim of derailing as many of the Kremlin’s candidates at local and national elections as possible. They called it, “Smart Voting”.

On the eve of the election, they published a list of candidates from establishment parties, other than United Russia, who had the best chance of defeating United Russia members. The Kremlin responded by attempting to suppress the circulation of the list using every possible means. That included pressuring global digital giants like Apple, Google and Telegram, which shamefully caved in and removed Navalny’s apps, videos and online documents containing Smart Voting information.

The outcome of the standoff between the Kremlin and Smart Voting proponents proved patchy, allowing Team Navalny to claim a measure of success with the caveat that its main regional victories were stolen through previously unseen levels of election fraud. Here is how it worked.

Half of the seats in the elections were allocated to party lists and half to individual candidates running. United Russia won just less than 50 percent of party list votes, down from 54 percent in 2016, but it won 88 percent of single-seat constituencies. Thus, it retained a super-majority in the Russian Duma, which allows it to change the constitution as it pleases. The Communist Party came second, making considerable gains, likely thanks to pro-Navalny votes.

But official figures do not add up. First of all, opinion polls conducted by government pollsters on the eve of the election suggested that United Russia could only hope for just more than 40 percent of party-list votes. The surge of up to 9 percent at the election is hard to explain, unless one assumes a large-scale fraud. The gap between polls and election results was even wider in Moscow, Russia’s most opposition-minded city, making residents wonder where all these United Russia supporters came from.

The most bizarre results come out of the single-seat constituencies in the Russian capital. Candidates supported by Navalny’s Smart Voting were set to take Moscow by storm after paper ballots were counted, despite blatant violations reported by election observers. But that was completely overturned by the 1.8 million votes cast through the online voting system, which was introduced for the first time in national elections this year and was made available to 16 million voters in seven regions of the country, including Moscow.

Political preferences of virtual voters in the capital turned out to be directly opposite to those of people who preferred to vote in the old-fashioned way. They managed to swing the election in every single district, where Kremlin candidates would have lost it otherwise.

Most scandalously, the online voting envisaged a re-vote feature, which a whopping 300,000 chose to use in this election in order to edit their votes. That feature was blamed for an hours-long delay in the release of e-voting results for Moscow. They only started trickling in after nearly all of the paper ballots had already been counted.

The Kremlin will find it hard to sell these elections as fair. The idea that tech-savvy e-voting enthusiasts are pro-Putin whereas paper-generation folks are in the ranks of the opposition contradicts everything Russians know about their country. Polls have consistently shown that Russia’s “Internet generation” is the most anti-Putin demographic.

Various researchers, who analysed the results of the vote, have detected statistical anomalies, which lead them to consider a significant number of United Russia votes as inauthentic. One of them, Sergey Shpilkin, attributes around 14 million votes cast for United Russia to anomalous spikes in voter activity, which may suggest ballot stuffing at polling stations or similar manipulations with online votes.

In a post released by his allies, Navalny compared the outcome of the Duma elections to a scoreboard at a football match, which shows results entirely unrelated to what is happening in the field. That sentiment is certainly shared by many of his compatriots, which will contribute to the accelerating erosion of the regime’s legitimacy.

Both Putin and Navalny know that they are fighting for a conformist majority whose members find it safer to stick with the crowd, when it comes to political choices. Unlike Soviet people in the 20th century, today’s Russians, however, are not bound by ideology.

Their choices are primarily dictated by their recent experiences, which boil down to a commonly shared conviction that pretty much anything can be tolerated in order to prevent war or revolutionary terror. Their herd psychology means that they tend to change direction simultaneously, in a hard-to-predict one-off event, as it happened when the Soviet system collapsed in 1991.

Putin has been their genuine choice as a guarantor of stability and relatively good standards of living for two decades, but his star is in decline. This election has further shattered people’s perception of him as a genuine majoritarian leader. United Russia falling below 50 percent in the party-list vote, per official results, is particularly ominous in this respect.

Worse than that, the manipulations with e-voting in Moscow underscore the fact that Putin has lost the Russian capital, which can be a watershed moment in such a highly centralised country as Russia. His herd is visibly nervous and starting to look away from the shepherd.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.