Local and regional Russian elections rarely make international headlines for the simple reason that in recent years the nationally dominant incumbent United Russia party has tended to sweep such votes with little effort. This year though, large cracks in United Russia’s armour are becoming visible and are indeed rapidly widening by the standards of otherwise lethargic local elections in Russia.
Throughout the local elections, various races saw the incumbent party lose ground to a combination of independents, Communist party candidates and most importantly, those from the populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) founded and led by opposition veteran and consummate outsider Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
In the Russian Pacific (Russian Far East) region of Khabarovsk, the LDPR candidate for governor Furgal Sergei Ivanovich won the run-off election against his United Russia opponent with a landslide 70% of the vote. On the other side of the country in the region of Vladimir near Moscow LDPR challenger Vladimir Sipyagin gathered 53.03%, thus defeating the United Russia incumbent.
While it is true that United Russia remained the strongest overall party, the LDPR’s surprisingly good performance across a variety of regions in the large country demonstrates not only a growing fatigue with a United Russia party that is increasingly seen as an ultra-corrupt careerist institution designed to further the material aspirations of its members rather than elevate the condition of the Russian people, but it also demonstrates that the wave of populism sweeping much of the democratic world is now about to sweep Russia.
While incredibly unpopular increases in the pension age brought forward by United Russia have clearly swung many people away from the incumbent party, there are wider and longer term issues at play in Russia as there are in almost every democratic state where populist forces are rising against old parties who are losing what they felt was their pseudo-divine right to govern.
In an age where establishment parties and politicians have been taking a beating in the United States (in the form of Donald Trump), Italy, Austria, Poland and to an extent in Britain, France and The Netherlands and while support for the right-populist government of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban remains solid, it is becoming clear that the old parties of the centre across multiple western democracies are slowly but surely losing their appeal due to a combination of social liberalism going firmly out of fashion throughout the world while neo-liberal economies is being rejected on the basis of being unfit for purpose in the 21st century.
In Asia this trend is equally apparent. The phenomenon of populist parties and leaders clinching major victories in Asia was made abundantly clear when Imran Khan’s PTI claimed a victory in this summer’s elections in Pakistan. This trend was also affirmed when Turkey’s President Erdogan and his AK Party continued to out-perform the legacy CH Party in recent Presidential and parliamentary elections. Likewise, the reemergence of veteran Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad whose new coalition ousted the long ruling United Malays National Organisation showed that the trend towards populism is occurring both in the most vibrant democracies of both Europe and in Asia. The continued popularity of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is yet another example of the Eurasian pivot towards populism.
In 2015, Vladimir Zhirinovsky predicted that by 2024, United Russia will largely be a spent force while even prior to that current President Vladimir Putin will continue to distance himself from the party. Already Zhirinovsky’s prediction appears to have come true as while Putin accepted United Russia’s endorsement in 2018 he ran and won as an independent. Likewise, throughout Europe, the migrant crisis which was largely created and then exacerbated by centrist factions throughout the EU will likely lead to a long term backlash that will favour the populist right whose once disparate national factions have united throughout Europe against the open-door policy made infamous by Angela Merkel.
Beyond this, more and more Russian voters are picking up on Zhirinovsky’s record of accurately predicting future geopolitical events, often decades in advance. Zhirinovsky has long argued for deeper Russian engagement in the wider global east and south including with both the Chinese world, the Turkic world and the wider Ummah (global Islamic community). Likewise, at a time when many if not most Russian politicians sought subservient relations with the United States, Zhirinovsky warned that such a situation was untenable and ultimately not desirable. Zhirinovsky further predicted as early as the late 1990s that the western powers would use Ukraine as a fulcrum around which to launch provocations against Russian people and the Russian state, while for years Zhirinovsky has stated the importance of Russia looking to fellow Asian rather than European countries for economic and diplomatic partnerships.
Domestically, the LDPR have fought against predatory debt practices by the private sector while also arguing for a combination of less regulation on small business combined with the nationalisation of major industry. The LDPR are also opposed to any increase in the pension age which has won them many new supporters in recent months.
A combination of foreign policy predictions that history has proved correct along with domestic reforms that seek to transform Russia from a party-political satrapy into a more effective and transparent democracy are all reason why the growing electoral wave behind the LDPR should not be ignored.
Zhirinovsky himself did not think that 2018 was going to be the year that his party would rise to power at a national level but he did indicate as far back as 2016 that 2024 would be the year that Russian politics changes. Based on Zhirinovsky’s previously accurate predictions, it would not be wise to bet against him this time. There is every chance that today’s corrupt, un-inspirational and lethargic Russian political elite will be fully or at least greatly out of power by 2024.