United Russia, the governing party of Vladimir Putin, suffered surprising losses in parliamentary elections on Sunday, losing its 50 percent majority. It could be the beginning of a new era. Vladimir Putin and his party are suffering from a lack of political legitimacy, with the elections serving not just as a referendum on United Russia but also on Mr. Putin and his plans to run for president in March and remain Russia’s paramount political leader.
The largest demonstration since the early 1990s took place in Moscow Monday night, with about ten thousand people participating. The OMON police SWAT teams have detained many activists, including opposition leaders, who protested against election fraud and prepared to march to the Central Electoral Commission.
My Facebook page bursts with dozens of posts and YouTube clips on people being beaten, election rigging, ballot stuffing, violations of electoral law and protests against the election results. The role of social networks in Russian politics is on the rise. Not a Facebook revolution yet, but it may be getting there.
The election results also caused confusion among Russia’s ruling elite: President Dmitry Medvedev has announced the elections “free and fair,” to hoots of laughter and derision in the media and among the elites.
All opposition parties, with the exception of the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Lib-Dem Party (which is neither liberal nor democratic), promised to appeal the Central Electoral Commission results. Small wonder: in Rostov, 140 percent of listed voters reportedly took part in elections; in Chechnya, there was a 99.5 percent voter turnout with over 99 percent going to United Russia; and in a lunatic asylum near Moscow 93.5 percent of inmates voted for United Russia, with zero ballots for the opposition.
The opposition blogger and anticorruption crusader Alexei Navalny was detained Monday night near the infamous Lubyanka Square, the headquarters of the FSB security services (and, previously, the much-feared KGB). Navalny “branded” the ruling party, calling it “The Party of Crooks and Thieves.”
The ruling party can “legitimately” count on 238 out of 450 seats in the sixth Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly), compared to 315 after the 2007 elections. Vladimir Churov, chairman of Central Election Commission, is likely to throw in a few more “on the house” and may hoist United Russia up to 270 seats.
This development comes only three months before Putin will run for the third time for president of the Russian Federation. Just three weeks ago, at a meeting with the members of the Valdai Club this author attended, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov declared that a result fewer than three hundred seats for United Russia would be considered a failure, and “failure is not an option.”
This election was a litmus test for President Medvedev as the head of the United Russia list and for Vladimir Putin’s plans to remain Russia’s paramount leader for many years to come. Now Medvedev, who promised to serve as a prime minister if the party does well in the election, may reconsider (or someone may reconsider for him), opening the way for competent economic-policy makers, such as the former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, to be appointed to the prime minister’s office by Putin.
Even appointing a respected figure like Kudrin, who resigned in protest against the runaway budget plans of Putin and Medvedev, may not save the day. The lower and middle classes, who vote for communists, nationalists and liberals, are weary of rampant corruption. Many are unhappy with the Putin-Medvedev tandem’s perceived trick of returning Putin to power this coming spring. The people are not content with the economic situation. And they are not silent, as they were in 2003 and 2007 parliamentary elections, in which observers registered many similar violations, albeit on a lesser scale.
A perception of rigged and stolen elections would not go over well in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The first wave of resentment towards Putin and Medvedev was apparent when they announced on Sept. 24 that they would simply be switching jobs next spring. Recently, Putin was booed during an appearance at a mixed-martial-arts tournament.
Even so, the results of this election were surprising. A multitude of independent polls widely available on increasingly popular social networks show United Russia’s support at 30 percent to 35 percent of the vote.
However, the elections are not a victory for enlightened liberals either. Nor are they a sign that the people are hankering for a more pro-Western course. If one combines 20 percent or more of the vote cast for communists, with 10 percent gained by LDPR and a good part of United Russia votes, it becomes clear that antidemocratic forces may be polling at 40 percent to 50 percent. This is a less-than-flattering result twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
These elections have shown that the far Left is gaining popularity, not the liberals. Voters opted for Stalinist communists and social democrats from the Just Russia party. This is understandable as voters saw The Right Cause, a “liberal” party that was allowed to run as Kremlin puppet-master Vladislav Surkov’s creature, while the Ministry of Justice banned more genuine classic liberals, such as Party of People’s Freedom (PARNAS). Yabloko, a liberal-Left party headed by a veteran politician Grigory Yavlinsky, bombed.
Yet these elections suggest that discontent and civil unrest could be on the rise. The United Russia pool of support is draining, and this could be the first sign that its leaders’ grip on power has weakened. In this light, some experts suggest that the forthcoming presidential election may mark the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin’s reign.
Surveys of public opinion confirm that most Russians are not enthusiastic about Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. At this writing, his support stands at roughly 31 percent, down from over 60 percent just a few months ago. Even if we add to this the 7 percent support for the tandem’s “better half,” Dmitry Medvedev, the number is still 38 percent. This is not all that impressive for an administration that retains a tight grip on government-controlled television.
To have a working majority, United Russia will create a coalition, possibly with Zhirinovsky’s LDPR or some members from the Just Russia party, which originally was created by Surkov and company. However, regardless of the configuration in the Duma, Russia’s current political system looks less secure than it did two days ago.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).