A belated word on the State Duma elections in Russia and their aftermath. United Russia suffered a striking decline in support, managing 49.4% of the vote and scraping an outright majority, though the party lost the constitutional majority of 2/3rds which it previously enjoyed.
The results have attracted a great deal of attention and commentary in the western media for two reasons. Firstly, the disappointing outcome for United Russia has been interpreted as a sign of growing disillusionment with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his successor as President, Dmitry Medvedev.
That’s not an unfair thesis. Putin has acknowledged himself that some voters have taken the opportunity to give their country’s rulers a bloody nose at the polls. He ascribes this phenomenon to difficult financial circumstances, but there’s also more than likely a growing sense of weariness and resentment at an elite which has dominated politics for 11 years.
It’s still almost inconceivable that Putin could lose the presidential election which will take place in May and, with two six year terms possible, he may remain Russia’s figurehead until 2024. Almost any politician, however popular, will experience a degree of public fatigue if they stay at the top level of politics for so long. In the UK the Conservatives suffered it under Thatcher. The same thing happened to New Labour under Tony Blair. People get bored.
Britain, though, is a parliamentary democracy, while Russia is a Presidential Republic. However closely associated United Russia is with the Kremlin, they are not one and the same. Power is concentrated in an ‘administrative regime’, rather than the party or parliament.
The wild caricature that frequently appears in editorials in newspapers like The Times or The Daily Telegraph is not remotely accurate. Russia is not a neo-Stalinist one party state. United Russia has never been allowed to monopolise power completely and there has always remained, quite deliberately, a degree of distance between the ‘regime’ and the ‘ruling party’.
There is little doubt that Putin isn’t as popular as he once was. That doesn’t mean that his personal popularity doesn’t far outstrip the collective popularity of United Russia and it doesn’t mean that he can only be re-elected as President if the will of voters is misrepresented by a fabricated election result.
The other aspects of the Duma contest which commanded column inches are the allegations of wide-spread ballot rigging and the subsequent street protests which took place in Moscow and other Russian cities.
There little doubt that irregularities did take place and the Kremlin’s own probe uncovered more than 2,000 violations. That’s not to say, though, that the election’s outcome was substantively distorted.
At Sublime Oblivion Anatoly Karlin provides polling data from all the major companies in Russia. The final result for United Russia was forecast remarkably accurately by these figures and the party’s percentage of the vote was actually at the lower end of what was predicted. Exit poll data was a little more variable.
Regional breakdowns certainly showed discrepancies in a number of regions (the Caucasus results rarely look credible), but there is nothing to suggest widespread or centralised fraud.
United Russia certainly had a bruising election, Vladimir Putin will certainly have a challenge to maintain his popularity ahead of the presidential poll and many Russians are certainly very cross at the corrupt fashion in which the election was administered. The swell of dissent, though, hasn’t led to suppression or a crack-down. Indeed, quite the reverse.
There’s every indication that the new Duma will prove an extremely rambunctious forum for political debate. And the outgoing president has just proposed comprehensive reforms to revitalise pluralism in Russia.
Of course many commentators will react cynically to these liberal overtures. But neither Medvedev nor Putin has ever shown themselves to be impervious or unresponsive to public opinion.
And then there’s the continuing lack of a credible opposition. The Communist Party remains the second biggest bloc in the Duma. For all the opprobrium heaped on Vladimir Putin by certain newspapers and politicians in the UK, who seriously contends that President Zyuganov would be a positive development for Russians?
Or how about a stage nationalist demagogue like Zhirinovsky? Eduard Limonov, restyled as an opposition leader, after his ‘red-brown’ fusion of Nazism, Bolshevism and Dada, the National Bolsheviks?
The poster boy of the protests, Alexei Navalny, who coined the nickname ‘party of swindlers and thieves’ for United Russia, is another unabashed nationalist. Perhaps Mikhail Prokhorov, the right leaning businessman who briefly led Right Cause, is the least alarming rival to Putin who has emerged so far.
At the moment the best outcome for the protestors in Russia may not be an immediate change at the top, but rather an improved system, which allows a credible alternative to emerge through time and offers reforms which make future elections work better.