The results from Sunday's parliamentary elections are (mostly) in, and the ruling United Russia Party took a beating at the ballot box. During the last elections in 2007, United Russia garnered 64% of the vote, but after Sunday it looks like the party of Putin will be lucky to crack the 50% threshold. With 95% of the ballots counted as of late on Monday, United Russia held a 49.5% share of the vote; in fact there was speculation that the official tally was being delayed so that election officials could “massage” the figures to put United Russia above the symbolic 50% marker.
What's more amazing is that United Russia is pulling only about 50% after staging massive voter fraud in their favor. Reports out of Russia are that there were more reports of irregularities on Sunday than there were during the 2007 vote, which was also viewed with suspicion. Vote monitors have collected nearly 5,000 reports of voting irregularities from Vladivostok in the Far East, to Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost European enclave. The most popular reports are of ballot boxes arriving at polling places pre-stuffed with votes for United Russia and of cadres of citizens being bussed from poling station to poling station, casting votes at each. But the early results also showed that the Kremlin's decision to install strongman Razman Kadyrov as leader of Chechnya continues to pay dividends as nearly 100% of Chechen voters went to the polls with 99.48% casting ballot in favor of United Russia – I guess Kadyrov allowed the 0.52% of votes for other candidates to make the results look “legitimate”.
Yet it is important to remember that even with widespread reports of voter fraud, United Russia still only received half of the votes cast, meaning actual support for Putin and his party is likely far lower among Russians. The Russian opposition to Putin, however, did not coalesce around a single opposition party – the Communists are set to come in second with nearly 20%, even finishing ahead of United Russia in some regions; the populist-leaning A Just Russia finished third with 13% and the nationalist Liberal Democrats placed just behind them with 12%. The liberal Yabloko party failed to break the 7% threshold parties need to pass to earn seats in the Duma. But opposition parties are challenging the results in some localities and other opposition leaders, like Boris Nemtsov and Eduard Limonov are challenging the legitimacy of the entire election saying that their parties were illegally banned from participating in the election in the first place.
Predictably, Kremlin spokespeople tried to spin United Russia's electoral drubbing as a victory of sorts for Putin, noting that since the start of the great Global Recession in 2008 governments have been voted out of office in places like Spain and Great Britain, while in the United States the Republicans scored major electoral victories in 2010. Thus, they argue, since United Russia managed to stay in power at all is a sign of faith in the party and in the ruling tandem of Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. And there might even be something to their argument if not for the statements from Russian voters cited in almost any article you read about the elections, noting that their opposition to United Russia crystallized at the time when Putin announced he would be running for president again in 2012 – a sign, they say, that the political system had stagnated and that none of the oft-made promises for reform would ever occur. Many Russians, the ones brave enough to talk with the press at least, are simply fed up with the now-seemingly eternal Era of Putin and have decided to take it out on his party.
So what will this election mean? In one sense, not much will change. United Russia will still control the Duma, meaning the legislative body is likely to remain little more than a rubber stamp for the Kremlin. But in another sense, Sunday's elections could be a signal of a turning point, where the typically apolitical Russian public finally starts to engage with their democracy. As of Monday night, protesters were taking to the streets in Moscow, by some estimates in a crowd of up to 10,000, chanting “Russia without Putin”, a slogan of one opposition movement. It will be interesting to see how Putin himself responds. Sunday's election in Russia reminds me of Zimbabwe's last presidential election in a sense. In Zimbabwe, long-time strongman ruler Robert Mugabe seemed to eschew some of the heavy-handed tactics that had marked the previous presidential election; the result was that Mugabe finished a close second to Morgan Tsvangirai and the reformist Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Mugabe decided to take no chances in the runoff, unleashing Zimbabwe's state security forces, along with thugs from his own ZANU-PF party against the MDC with such a degree of violence that Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off both for his own safety and the safety of the MDC's supporters.
It will be interesting to see if Putin follows a similar tack for the Presidential elections scheduled just three months from now. While it is hard to see an opposition candidate emerging who could unite Russia's opposition and defeat him, Putin is unlikely to want to take that risk, or to squeak into the presidency with only 40% of the vote in a divided field. So it is entirely possible that his response could be to crack town even harder on Russia's opposition parties and to engage in even more ballot-rigging. The question then becomes how will the international community respond to a fraudulent election, and how will the Russians themselves respond. It's worth noting that at this time last year, it was hard to imagine that Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi would be driven from office by popular revolutions.