Elections under Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy” have become grimly predictable affairs. Rampant fraud and bans on all but fringe or manufactured opposition parties have ensured that Putin’s United Russia Party routinely triumphs in a landslide, with Putin then trumpeting the results as a vindication of his authoritarian regime. This weekend’s parliamentary elections largely followed this script but with a surprise ending: United Russia failed to capture even 50 percent of the vote, a major setback considering its blatant manipulation of the election and one that highlights the extent of the Russian public’s discontent with the country’s corrupt one-man, one-party rule.
That this weekend’s election was a mockery of fairness goes without saying. Serious opposition parties were prohibited from taking part, while governors and mayors across the country were issued specific quotas for votes that they were required to meet. There were countless reports of young people being transported from voting station to voting station so that they could vote multiple times. So extensive was the vote rigging that some regions of Russia reported election turnout exceeding 140 percent. Elsewhere, United Russia claimed support that echoed the fixed elections of the Soviet-era. In Chechnya, the domain of Kremlin-installed dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, United Russia claimed 99.5 percent of the vote.
While party apparatchiks rigged the vote, Russia’s state-owned television stations, the source for most of the national news, churned out a steady stream of pro-Putin propaganda. One notable target was Golos, Russian for “voice,” the country’s sole independent election monitor. Harassed by police and smeared as traitorous by the media, Golos was also the victim of cyber-attacks, which shut down the organization’s web site, including an online map that allowed people across the country to report voting violations. The websites of the country’s few remaining independent media, such as the radio station Ekho Moskvy, were also shut down, as was LiveJournal, Russia’s leading blogging host.
Considering the efforts expended by United Russia to engineer its latest landslide, it is all the more notable that it not only failed to achieve it, but actually lost votes, with some of the largest losses coming in the major cities. In St Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, United Russia garnered just 34 percent of the vote. Overall, the party won less than 50 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent in 2007. In a low-turnout election, the majority of Russians who voted gave their support to the only other parties available, mostly communist and extreme nationalist parties.
It’s hard to see the results as anything but a rebuff of Putin. While the prime minister has enjoyed high approval ratings, inflated by the absence of a critical press and any curbs on political opposition, there are signs that he may have overreached in recent months. In September, Putin announced that he would seek the presidency again, meaning that that he could be in power until 2024. That announcement was not unexpected. It has been widely understood that Putin’s decision to yield the presidency to his former deputy Dmitri Medvedev was a temporary arrangement, one that would allow Putin to maintain his grip on power from behind the scenes. Nonetheless, Putin’s accompanying statement that the decision had been made long ago was startling in its brazenness and confirmed that any hopes Russians may have had of political reforms were hollow.
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