Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Russia's Elections

Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party scored a resounding victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, taking approximately 64% of the vote. Three other parties won seats in the Duma: the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and A Just Russia, a coalition of three smaller parties. None of the other 11 parties competing in the election received more than 7% of the total votes cast, the threshold for representation in the Duma.

The resounding win for United Russia was no surprise, though some political analysts believed that the Communists would be the only other party to break through the 7% threshold.

There have been numerous reports of voting irregularities – government employees told to vote for United Russia or risk losing their jobs and university students being told to take a picture of their ballot and passport while in the voting booth to confirm they voted for United Russia were among those circulated in the US and British press. The Communist party has stated they will challenge the results in the Supreme Court, while the US and several European governments have also called for an investigation.

A United Russia spokesman admitted that there might have been some irregularities, stating that there are a certain number of irregularities in any election, but that they would not affect the ultimate result of the election. And he is likely correct.

This fact makes the attempts at vote-fixing that have been reported, along with the Kremlin’s refusal to allow election monitors from Europe, to be, in a word, stupid.

Putin turned the parliamentary election into a referendum on his rule; a vote for United Russia became a vote of confidence in his policies of the last seven years. Given Putin’s widespread popularity (his approval rating is usually cited at somewhere above 70%), United Russia was bound to cruise to an easy victory.

And even for Russian voters looking for a change, the other parties offer few alternatives. The Communists are largely a party of pensioners who long for the return of the Soviet Union, the Liberal Democratic party is led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a fiery nationalist not seriously regarded as a national leader. Russia’s two main leftist parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS is Russian), which shot to prominence in the 1990’s, have never recovered from the political chaos of that time.

So given the backing of a very popular president and facing a field of weak adversaries, a big United Russia victory was basically a sure thing. But by excluding election monitors and allowing (if not directing) actions to compel voters to choose United Russia, their victory has been undermined, at least in the eyes of the outside world. International relations between Russia and the United States/European Union will undoubtedly suffer as a result.

Domestically, in the short term at least, tensions between Russia and the West over the election will reinforce the idea that the West wants to meddle in Russia’s affairs and will likely boost Putin as he appears to once again stand up to western pressure. The longer term implications are harder to read – whether these elections inspire people looking for political change, or crush the opposition, and even if those looking for change decide it must come in the form of a revolution rather than an election – a theme too familiar in Russian history.

The result does serve as a confirmation of Putin’s power and popularity. What happens when his term as president ends next year remains to be seen.
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