Russia's opposition shut out as 3-day parliamentary election starts
Maren Eggert as Alma and Dan Stevens as Tom in a scene from the film "Ich bin dein Mensch" ("I Am Your Man") Christine Fenzl/Majestic/dpa
Maren Eggert as Alma and Dan Stevens as Tom in a scene from the film "Ich bin dein Mensch" ("I Am Your Man") Christine Fenzl/Majestic/dpa

Russians began voting on Friday in parliamentary elections that see all 450 seats in the Duma up for grabs, yet a win by United Russia, the ruling party that has supported President Vladimir Putin for two decades, is considered a foregone conclusion.

The voting is being held over three days, a decision authorities say was taken in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus but which the opposition argues increases opportunities for fraud.

The Kremlin has cleared the field of many of its rivals, with opposition members in prison, detained, or simply not allowed to run.

Meanwhile, one independent media outlet after another has been shut down in recent months after authorities targeted them for being "foreign agents," while election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be absent.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is trying, from prison, to promote Smart Voting - a strategy in which anti-Kremlin voters throw their support en masse behind the candidates seen as having the best shot of unseating establishment lawmakers.

Navalny's allies have created a mobile app and online tools to support Smart Voting, but what impact the tactic would ultimately have on the results was a matter of speculation.

From his penal camp east of Moscow, Navalny has been able to get messages out to his supporters in which he urges them to coalesce to oust Putin's "corrupt" regime.

"We can do it, there are more of us," Vladimir Milov said recently on his YouTube channel, one of the many Navalny associates trying to stir up the beleaguered opposition's enthusiasm.

United Russia, which is strongly allied to, and in many cases identical with, Russia's oligarch class, currently has 336 lawmakers in the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of the parliament.

The body is less powerful than the presidency but still plays important advisory and legislative functions.

United Russia's popularity has plummeted amid widespread discontent over economic and social hardships. But since it is expected to maintain its majority, the real question is how many seats the opposition can peel away.

There are small handful of other parties already represented in the Duma, although their ideologies and positions frequently overlap with United Russia's.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is hoping to expand their presence under 77-year-old party leader Gennady Zyuganov. There is also 75-year-old right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with his nationalist LDPR party and Sergei Mironov, 68, of the A Just Russia — For Truth party.

Political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre said the pervasive opinion among Russians was that the whole election is utterly pointless.

But Putin needs the election - even if it is neither free nor fair - because having a majority in parliament confers a veil of legitimacy to his 21 years in power.

"In Russia, with its advanced authoritarianism, this is not a choice like from a menu for a particular dish, but a Yes vote," Kolesnikov said, adding that anti-democratic tactics were a given.

"The most important tool, as always, is the mobilization of people who are dependent on the state," he said, mentioning employees of state-owned enterprises and public workers.

Kolesnikov said the "tightening" of the Kremlin's grip will continue and that he did not expect any large protests against the election results, saying too many people were too demoralized.