Falling popularity, surprising electoral upsets, candidates that run as independent for fear of being too closely associated with the party… Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, is going through some tough months. Or make it years? Yet, despite the growing challenges, falling popularity and predictions expecting the party’s demise or revamp, it is most likely that United Russia will remain Russia’s most important party in the foreseeable future.
According to VTsIOM, a state-affiliated pollster, the popularity of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, was at an all-time low in early July at 32.2%. It was not as though United Russia had gone through a precipitous fall. For the past year, the party’s ratings moved up and down between 32 and 38 percent according to VTsIOM, quite a poor showing for a party that holds a two-thirds majority in the State Duma. Last year Andrey Turchak, the secretary of the party’s general council in charge of running the party at the federal level, explained the party’s low popularity with the widespread public discontent over the government’s pension reform. But this hardly explains why United Russia has been struggling with its brand for almost a decade and why, in September this year, a record six pro-government gubernatorial candidates will run as independents rather than as the candidates of the ruling party, not to mention Moscow where all of the party’s deputies will be “independent” candidates. It seems as if the party of power had become a toxic brand, an embarrassment, so much that in recent years a series of rumors have spread about its demise, reorganization or replacement with another vehicle of pro-government political mobilization. But this is unlikely to happen.
United Russia was created in 2001 from a merger of three parties that supported Vladimir Putin, as a party of presidential majority. It has held a majority in the State Duma ever since and held the reins in the overwhelming majority of Russia’s 83 regions. United Russia has never had a monopoly over the Russian political system, unlike the CPSU; however, over time it became the “party of officials”, and gradually indistinguishable from the state in many Russian regions. Regional executives and representatives of Moscow became its regional leaders. In the past decade, aside from its group that served as the government’s voting machinery in the parliament, it was increasingly inactive as a political party between two elections, save for one particular activity, which prompted Alexei Navalny to brand it “the party of crooks and thieves”. In this sense, the fact that its popularity decreased along with citizens’ trust in the government is unsurprising.
The party’s popularity is uneven across Russia – in regions like Chechnya where political freedoms are severely restricted as well as in regions with a dynamic economic growth and a close cooperation between the local political and business elite the party’s showing is still quite strong, even though last year’s surprising electoral upsets in four regions where United Russia supported incumbents as well as a recent uptick in the popularity of the Communist Party and the Just Russia party has certainly raised eyebrows in the leadership of the party.
Since at least 2011 when the “All-Russian People’s Front” was created as a coalition of pro-Putin parties and civil organizations by then deputy prime minister and now Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, and Mikhail Prokhorov, a yuppie businessman briefly took over the Right Cause party, there has been constant talk about a “reform” of the party system in Russia, about “the Kremlin” engineering it into a two-party system or creating a brand new governing party on the ruins of United Russia and Just Russia, which itself was created as a competitor to the Communist Party. These predictions ignore the fact that Russia’s party system is not designed on a drawing board in the Kremlin. While there have always been officials charged with engineering domestic politics, redesigning the Russian party system from above would fail partly due to the lack of means but mostly due to the lack of clear and undivided will of the critical mass of people whose cooperation would be needed for any transformation on this scale.
United Russia, nominally led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, itself is a divided house. In 2012-16 Volodin, then as the deputy head of the Presidential Administration in charge of domestic politics had a considerable influence in the party, especially in the State Duma. Key party officials received direct orders from the Presidential Administration and carried them out in the parliament. Since 2016, however, Volodin has gradually lost control over the party, even as he was appointed Speaker of the Duma. His successor in the Presidential Administration, Sergey Kiriyenko pushed back against Volodin’s network in the party. It was this struggle for power that enabled Andrey Turchak, the son of one of Putin’s judo partners and himself a ruthless political operator, to become general party secretary. While Turchak got the position with Kiriyenko’s help – and probably against the wishes of Medvedev – he is by no means Kiriyenko’s instrument. There is thus a three-way (or if you count Medvedev, four-way) struggle for United Russia, with constant pledges to renew and modernize the party, which never actually happens. It’s doubtful if it ever will.
Why fight for a party that is quietly but steadily deflating? Firstly, for its properties and material wealth that it accumulated over close to twenty years of uninterrupted rule amidst lax regulations on party funding. Even more important is the party’s still enormous power network in Moscow and the regions, hard currency that is worth significantly more than the party’s material wealth. Third, while United Russia is not the shining brand it once was, it is still the most popular party of those that are on offer. This is an important asset as Russia is drawing close to the 2021 legislative election, which will determine the composition of the parliament that will sit when Putin’s fourth presidential term runs out in 2024. Expect more movement than before in party ratings as Russia’s political elite prepare for the post-Putin era by hedging their bets and building political vehicles, expect more candidates to run as independent, expect more parties other than United Russia to win elections. But don’t expect the demise of United Russia just yet. It may seem hapless every once in a while, but it is too big to fail.