The recent Duma elections and the subsequent wave of comments on them forces me to express my views on both.
First, it is astonishing that some comments (such as Ariel Cohen's in The National Interest on Dec. 6, 2011) speak of the “unexpected” loss of the United Russia party. After all, there was nothing unexpected about it. Over a year ago, Vladislav Surkov, first deputy chief of staff of the president of the Russian Federation, was talking about how United Russia would not have a constitutional majority following the forthcoming elections, and he usually knows what he is talking about. And all public-opinion polls in the months preceding the elections, including the respected Levada Center, suggested that United Russia could count on support in the range of 45–55 percent. This is exactly why all talk of mass falsifications does not stand up to scrutiny, even though there were certainly isolated cases of fraud. They could not have influenced the final outcome as the results matched the most conservative of the Levada forecasts, and the center is far from being sympathetic to the authorities.
Second, many observers portray the electoral results as defeat not just for United Russia but also for Putin personally. Still, for a party that has been both dominant and ruling for nearly ten years, and during the time when Russia was through serious socio-economic turmoil due to the global economic crisis, this is a dignified performance. After all, such a result would be considered a glowing triumph for any Western party in power during the economic crisis.
We need to pay attention to the potential connection between the recent electoral results and Putin's chances in next March’s presidential elections. I believe that, had Medvedev resigned as president on the night when he first put forward Putin's candidacy, the authorities could have combined the presidential and parliamentary elections, and Putin could have used his personal charisma and popularity to cement victory not just for himself but also for United Russia. The party likely would have attained about 10 percent more votes than it garnered on December 4. According to the Levada Center, Putin's rating stood at over 60 percent on the eve of the elections (and not the 31 percent suggested by Ariel Cohen).
After September 24, something happened that caused considerable confusion within the electorate. Although the party was founded by Putin, it was the acting president who led the electoral lists. In those circumstances, the prime minister could not run his own campaign and thus use his charisma and mobilizational potential. Had he done so, Medvedev would have been forced to operate under the shadow of Putin, which would have been disrespectful on Putin's part.
On the other hand, Medvedev still could not muster a full and persuasive campaign because United Russia was not his party, and he lacked Putin’s level of charisma and mobilizational savvy. Thus, recognizing that factors in the outcome included the economic crisis, the weariness of the party, and the growing demands of the electorate, the absence of a clear party leader contributed to the not-very-convincing victory for United Russia.
A more interesting opinion was expressed by Paul Saunders on December 7. He wrote that the electoral results for United Russia have removed the aura of invincibility from the party and also from Putin. I would argue that the removal of this aura is a positive development for both Putin and the country. It will shake off the danger of stagnation that authority faced, thereby forcing them to take more effective measures in the economic and social spheres—and also improve the system of feedback communications between society and the authorities.