Non-Parliamentary Parties in Contemporary Russia: On State Duma's Doorstep



The paper explores the status and assesses electoral prospects of non-parliamentary parties in the Russian Federation before the 2021 legislative election. Evaluative evidence used in the paper includes two types of data on results of elections to regional legislative assemblies sourced from the CEC of Russia. These two types are direct (vote returns) and indirect (list of parties with regional election privileges) data. The compiled data is used to create a performance rating of non-parliamentary parties by the number of gained votes and regional privileges as well as to determine potential leaders among said parties. By comparing quantitative parameters of voting for the party in a given election campaign scenario, the author concludes that it is highly unlikely that these parties can get over the threshold set for the legislative election. Said conclusion proposes a hypotheses that non-parliamentary parties will once again be used to stretch oppositional votes in the upcoming election.

The study of parties and elections in the regions of the Russian Federation has quite a long history and has become a regular part of the nation's academic landscape. At the same time, we cannot but notice that many authors mostly focus on campaigns and results of parliamentary parties like United Russia, CPRF, LDPR and A Just Russia. Non-parliamentary parties do not enjoy the same level of attention [15; 8; 2; 13]. In the context of elections, they are typically seen as outsiders [14: 117] who have been intentionally disadvantaged in their rights [3: 20] and whose only purpose seems to boil down to diversifying local political landscape by serving the needs of regional elites [1: 210]. Only the recent years have seen growing attention to this party group [4; 7], not least because some of these parties have been projected as possibly capable to join the State Duma following the 2021 legislative election [5]. For example, in November 2020, a telephone survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) revealed that 16% of voters would have voted for non-parliamentary parties if the Duma election had taken place in late 2020 [10]. Right after the election of September 2020, speakers of said parties announced their plans to join the State Duma [6; 9]. In this regard, assessing electoral prospects of non-parliamentary parties adds practical value to the already existing theoretical value.

The record of the 2016 legislative election shows that the only parties that have the chance to get elected (or at least run in the election) are the ones that do not have to collect voter signatures to register their candidates and lists. In 2016, there were 14 such parties: United Russia, CPRF, LDPR, A Just Russia, Yabloko, Patriots of Russia, People's Freedom Party (PARNAS), Communist Party – Communists of Russia (CPCR), Russian Party of Pensioners for Justice (as of 2017 – Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice, RPPSJ), Rodina, The Greens Russian Ecological Party (REP The Greens), Civic Platform and Civilian Power. They were the only ones to run for the State Duma. By 2020, Civilian Power and PARNAS dropped out of the list, which was instead joined by Communist Party of Social Justice (CPSJ, whose Russian abbreviation "KPSS" mirrors that of the ruling political party of the Soviet Union) [12]. Following the regional elections of 2020, New People (Rus. "Novye lyudi"), Green Alternative and For Truth (Rus. "Za pravdu") would join the list of privileged parties. As a result, by late 2020, the formal circle of State Duma election participants had been sketched out to include 16 parties – 4 parliamentary and 12 non-parliamentary. On 20 January 2021, A Just Russia, Patriots of Russia and For Truth announced a merger, which shrunk this number to 14.

How likely are non-parliamentary parties to get over the threshold? To answer this question, we should try to assess their electoral prospects based on the results of the previous elections. Information sources consulted include the Central Election Commission (CEC) data on vote returns in elections to regional and local representative bodies of power [16]. It is clear that parties that did not win any elections whatsoever have no chance of joining the State Duma (although it was possible before when the party system itself was unstable – for example, members of the Rodina bloc were elected to State Duma in 2003 and A Just Russia were in 2007). Successful performances of individual candidates in elections of officers or in single-seat constituencies are insignificant, since it is quite difficult to determine the balance between the party's influence and the candidate's personal resources and as factors for election. On the other hand, it is quite easy to assess the results of party list election to regional and local representative bodies.

Naturally, voters give more value to federal rather than regional elections, let alone municipal ones. This is why the turnout for the State Duma election is projected to be significantly higher than that for regional legislative assembly elections or local representative bodies – except for those that are elected at the same time as the State Duma. As a consequence, regional elections should be divided into two groups for the purposes of our analysis: 1) elections held parallel to State Duma election (39 regions) and 2) elections held separately (the remaining 46 regions). Elections in the first group give a more or less accurate picture of the level of support for a certain party in the regions where its lists reached the voting stage. The only problem here is that the data is nearly five years old, meaning political party sympathies and leanings of voters may have changed significantly. Elections in the second group paint a less satisfactory picture, as the participating party pool here is different from the State Duma pool, and voter turnout is typically much lower. By contrast, these elections are all relatively recent, so political party sympathies and leanings are more up-to-date than in 2016.

Among researchers who have already analyzed electoral performance of parties are Aleksandr Kynev, Arkadii Lyubarev and Andrei Maksimov. They used the arithmetic mean of party list results in regional parliamentary elections as well as elections to representative bodies of regional capitals to rank parties by their performance. Based on this data, the party lists closest to parliamentary parties included the ones of RPPSJ (in 2015, 2017 and 2018), Patriots of Russia (in 2014 and 2019, and in 2014 the party managed to outperform A Just Russia), Civic Platform (in 2013) and New People (in 2020) [7]. Unfortunately, these assessments do not include the 2012 and, most importantly, the 2016 elections that took place in most regions and administrative centers of the country. The given assessment is nevertheless noteworthy, as we can compare it to our conclusions.

As the starting point for analysis, we are going to use the register of political parties that are not required to collect voter signatures to nominate candidates and lists in regional legislative elections. The register was published by the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation (the CEC of Russia) based on the data from the Vybory (lit. "elections") State Automated System (SAS Vybory) as at 21 December 2020 [11]. This document suggests that there are 18 parties that have this privilege. In order to run for the State Duma, six of these parties are required to collect signatures – these include Party of Action, For Justice (PARZAS), PARNAS, People's Union, Cossack Party of Russian Federation and Small Business Party of Russia. This is why their chances of actually running in the State Duma election are minimal, and the chances of getting over the barrier are non-existent altogether.

Other parties have more significant privileges. However, the number of privileges and their value are markedly different. It should be reminded that to run for a legislative assembly, a party should have either a federal privilege (be represented in the Duma or gain the support at least 3% of voters in the State Duma election in the federal constituency) or a regional privilege (be represented in a regional legislative assembly or gain the support at least 3% of voters in the regional legislative assembly election in a unified constituency) or a municipal privilege (be represented in at least one municipal unit or gain the support at least 0.5% registered voters). It is clear that having representatives in a legislative assembly of a federal subject is far more significant than having them in a city/town or district council. And it is not simply about the high status of the regional legislative body of state power. In order to create a faction in a regional parliament, a party has to obtain the support of a much larger number of voters. For example, in order to obtain regional privilege in Tomsk Oblast, Yabloko had to gain 10240 votes (3.91%) in 2016, while the Party of Growth had to gain only 3851 (5.33% in the city of Tomsk) in the same region to obtain municipal privilege in 2020. On the other hand, the contrast may be starker: in the Republic of Bashkortostan in 2018, the regional privilege of Patriots of Russia "cost" 59075 votes, while the municipal privilege of REP The Greens only "cost" 7764 votes (15.5% in Oktyabrsky Urban Okrug) in the same region two years prior.

Table 1. Non-parliamentary parties with the right to refrain from collecting voter signatures to register for regional elections
Party name The 2016 legislative election result No. of regions where the party has the privilege
overall regional municipal
RPPSJ 1.73% 33 24 9
CPCR 2.27% 32 18 14
Rodina 1.51% 20 7 13
Yabloko 1.99% 16 13 3
Patriots of Russia 0.59% 14 7 7
Party of Growth 1.29% 8 1 7
REP The Greens 0.76% 7 1 6
CPSJ - 6 5 1
New People - 5 4 1
Civic Platform 0.22% 4 3 1
For Truth - 2 2 0
PARZAS - 2 0 2
Green Alternative - 2 2 0
Party of Action - 1 0 1
PARNAS 0.73% 1 0 1
People's Union - 1 0 1
Cossack Party of Russian Federation - 1 0 1
Small Business Party of Russia - 1 0 1

As can be seen from Table 1, For Truth and Green Alternatives parties achieved very little: the former put its candidate to Ryazan Oblast Duma and obtained regional privilege in Belgorod Oblast, while the latter created factions in the Komi Republic State Council and Chelyabinsk Oblast Legislative Assembly. Considering how these two parties are still new, this is a real achievement, if a modest one. Civic Platform is faring somewhat better: it has four privileges, where three are regional (in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, Bryansk and Irkutsk Oblasts) and one is municipal (in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)). Achievements of REP The Greens, on the other hand, only seem impressive: only one out of its seven privileges is regional (in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic). Party of Growth is in a similar situation: she has one municipal privilege more than REP The Greens, and only one regional privilege as well (in Saint Petersburg). In point of fact, this regional privilege is quite valuable, as Saint Petersburg alone gave the party 132 thousand votes. Parties in this group are not on the edge of survival, are likely to run for State Duma, but their achievements in regions are unlikely to bring them any serious results on the national scale yet.

There are seven more non-parliamentary parties whose chances seem higher. At the first glance, four regional and one municipal privilege for New People party is not much. However, they were all gained at once, on the election day of 13 September 2020. The party was able to put its factions to all legislative assemblies it intended to. For comparison's sake, For Truth party that was established around the same time as New People ran in 8 campaigns, but was successful only once. Moreover, in Novosibirsk and Ryazan Oblasts, New People did not just outrun other non-parliamentary parties – they outran A Just Russia as well. Therefore, we should not underestimate this party's electoral prospects.

CPSJ's figures are seemingly better – apart from a municipal privilege in the Republic of Kalmykia, it has five regional privileges. However, it only has working factions in the Republic of Buryatia, Vladimir Oblast and Irkutsk Oblast. In 2019 and 2020, the party did not have a single successful election campaign. It is still capable of siphoning some votes from CPRF and A Just Russia, but that is about it. That said, while CPSJ has high chance of running for the State Duma, it it unlikely to get over the threshold.

Before the merger with A Just Russia, Patriots of Russia had 7 regional and 7 municipal privileges. The party has factions in the parliaments of Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia–Alania, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Kaliningrad Oblast and Kemerovo Oblast. In the State Duma election, however, the party did not perform very well, as always. On the other hand, its votes will come in useful for A Just Russia.

Since the early 2000s, Yabloko has been losing in State Duma elections, and only has factions in legislative assemblies of the Republic of Karelia, Pskov Oblast and Saint Petersburg, which were all elected in 2016. At the same time, the party has 16 privileges: 13 regional (7 of them in Northwestern Federal District) and election figures that are close to getting the party over the threshold in Perm Krai as well as Moscow, Novgorod and Tomsk Oblasts.

Rodina party is more successful on the municipal level with only 7 regional privileges out of 20. The party is represented only in the Altai and Komi Republics, Tambov Oblast and Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Rodina has no privileges in Southern, Volga, Ural and Far Eastern Federal Districts. On the other hand, the wins in both republics came in 2019 and 2020.

CPCR falls into the category of potential leaders. It has 18 regional and 14 municipal privileges, yet is actually represented in only 6 regional parliaments: in Khakassia, Rostov Oblast, Tula Oblast, Ulyanovsk Oblast, Yaroslavl Oblast and Nenets Autonomous Okrug. What is important is that the party managed to outrun A Just Russia in the Republic of Khakassia and Ulyanovsk Oblast. But these are all achievements from 2018. Over the last two years, the party led by Maksim Suraikin did not get over the threshold even once, only acting as a CPRF spoiler and siphoning 2-4% of votes.

Last but not least is RPPSJ, the obvious leader of the rating, with 24 regional and 9 municipal privileges. The party has factions in 13 regional legislative assemblies: in Primorsky Krai, Belgorod Oblast, Volgograd Oblast, Kaluga Oblast, Kostroma Oblast, Kurgan Oblast, Moscow Oblast, Novosibirsk Oblast, Ryazan Oblast, Chelyabinsk Oblast, Smolensk Oblast and Tula Oblast, as well as in Sevastopol. Besides, 10 out of these factions have been elected over the last two years. In 2020, RPPSJ conveniently driven out A Just Russia from Belgorod Oblast Duma and took away a substantial amount of its votes in Kaluga, Novosibirsk and Ryazan Oblasts. Like Yabloko, RPPSJ does not have any privileges in North Caucasian Federal District, but has performed well in Central Federal District. Finally, it is the only non-parliamentary party that has not one, but two factions in legislative assemblies in Ural Federal District. It is logical to assume this particular party has the best chance of being elected to the State Duma.

Another way of estimating the potential scale of voting for a certain party in the Duma election is to summarize the amount of votes casted for its party lists in all regional elections. It is clear that this will be an approximate estimate at least because as opposed to parliamentary, non-parliamentary parties do not take part all election campaigns. However, a party's non-participation in a certain regional election is also quite telling, as it signifies that the party itself in unsure of achieving a more or less tangible success in the given region. Therefore, the amount of potential votes in said region is very low. On the other hand, fewer parties run in a regional election than in the State Duma one. It became an obvious trend after 2013, when the right of parties to register candidates and party lists without collecting signatures was abolished. Since ballots in regional elections do not include "Against all" option, voters have to cast their vote for the party that is closest to their political stance instead of the party they fully support. Therefore, the share of votes that goes to one party in the regional election will go to another party in the federal election. There is no doubt that this redistribution of votes will affect parliamentary parties the most, but non-parliamentary parties will suffer their share of losses, too. We would venture a guess that in our data, these losses will partially compensate the votes of "dropout voters" in the regions where the party did not run in the legislative assembly elections.

Table 2. Absolute voting figures for non-parliamentary parties in federal and regional elections
Party name Number of votes gained
in the 2016 legislative election in regional elections
2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 in 5 years
RPPSJ 910848 238548 - 45031 157829 207957 649365
Yabloko 1051335 602222 14460 5276 9320 3157 634435
CPCR 1192595 135014 60053 150067 142485 29093 516712
Patriots of Russia 310015 180949 51892 152813 18149 7207 411010
Party of Growth 679030 324671 1151 - 43512 29898 399232
Rodina 792226 154873 21788 23804 23454 64018 287937
REP The Greens 399429 85437 3836 32915 18387 16045 156620
CPSJ - 37566 3788 69834 2168 16777 130133
For Truth - - - - - 106248 106248
Civic Platform 115433 23838 - 34408 36017 - 94263
New People - - - - - 94196 94196
Green Alternative - - - - - 66881 66881

As we can see, all non-parliamentary parties except Patriots of Russia gained more votes in the 2016 elections than in regional elections in five years (see Table 2). There is a more pronounced gap for CPCR, Yabloko and Rodina in particular.

RPPSJ is once again leading in absolute figures, and its relatively low level of support in the 2016 legislative election can only be explained by administrative pressure that resulted in a crisis within the party. The party has the highest summarized amount of votes both in five years and in 2019-2020. We should point out the high summarized result of Yabloko and CPCR as well, while keeping in mind they have completely different dynamics. While Yabloko, Patriots of Russia and Party of Growth indicate a declining result dynamics, CPCR's is level and RPPSJ's is growing. To a certain extent, this dynamics is linked to uneven geographic dispersion of party support. Yabloko and Party of Growth supporters are mostly concentrated in major cities whose residents participated in regional elections, mostly in 2016. They do not have many reserve voters to fall back on, so they can only hope for a change in leanings of other voters. Electoral support for RPPSJ, CPCR, Rodina and REP The Greens has no direct connection to georgaphic division, so the "2016 vote" share in their summaries is not as big. This is why we can assume that these parties will once again gain considerably more votes in the State Duma election than in regional ones.

In the 2020 election, some of the votes were siphoned by parties that were thus empowered to run in the election. As a result, three out of these parties gained the most votes among non-parliamentary parties, giving way only ro RPPSJ. After For Truth dropped out, the remaining two parties once again have a good chance of outrunning others.

Analyzing regional and municipal privileges that non-parliamentary parties obtained in the elections between 2016 and 2020 thus suggests that RPPSJ has a much better starting point. It is followed by CPCR, but the party is lagging quite far behind it. On the other hand, Yabloko is the party whose starting point is the most unremarkable. The summarized number of votes gained in regional elections once again puts RPPSJ in the lead, where it is followed by Yabloko and CPCR consecutively. The newly formed parties look far less impressive against such a background. By the way, according to the data of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), Yabloko and RPPSJ also occupy leading positions in terms of support among parties in this group: opinion polls conducted in the fall indicated a 4% level of support for each party [10].

Data sourced from the CEC of Russia indicates that as at 1 January 2021, there are 110.3 million eligible voters inside and outside of Russia. It is curious that in 2016, the total number of registered voters was a little over 110 million, but it shrunk to 106.9 million by the 2018 presidential election, and now it has come back to previous levels. If other parameters of the 2016 election are to repeat in the 2020 election as well, the turnout will stand at 52.6 million, and it will thus take parties 2.6 million votes to get over the threshold. None of the non-parliamentary parties managed to gain as much in the recent years. This time, it will be more difficult for parties to get over the threshold, as party landscape has remained fragmented. Therefore, the "business as usual" scenario of the upcoming campaign leaves no chance for non-parliamentary parties to get into the State Duma.

Naturally, it is unlikely that the 2021 election will have the same turnout as the 2018 presidential election. However, if we assume that the escalating protest activity in the cities is very likely to increase the turnout, then the threshold for the State Duma may go up to 3 million votes or even higher. Such a protest scenario means that mostly the opposition parties will experience an increase in votes. Although as a rule, it is the parliamentary opposition parties that experience this increase while the rest of the parties do not benefit much from it. It is likely that the projected use of the Smart Voting strategy developed by the non-systemic opposition will only strengthen this cumulative effect.

To sum it up, we have to acknowledge that the prospects of non-parliamentary parties getting seats in the State Duma are very bleak at present. Both in BAU and protest voting scenarios, even the most successful of these parties get less votes than needed to get over the threshold. For them, running for the State Duma is not so much a chance of winning as the opportunity to demonstrate their electoral involvement before the CEC. As for the election campaign itself, the role of non-parliamentary parties is likely to boil down to stretching oppositional votes.

Received 02.02.2021.


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