By Thomas Stephens
Russian voters have sent Vladimir Putin a clear message that he must do more to keep them happy if he wants to extend his grip on the country for another 12 years.
Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, clung to a much-reduced majority in parliament after an election on Sunday that showed growing weariness with the man who has dominated Russia for more than a decade and who plans to return to the presidency next year.
In the biggest electoral setback for Putin since he rose to power in 1999, the Central Election Commission said United Russia was set to lose 77 seats in the state Duma and end up with 238, a slim majority in the 450-member lower house.
Opponents said even United Russia’s official result – 49.5 per cent of the vote – was inflated by fraud. The leader of the Communist Party, on target to increase its representation from 57 to 92 seats, said the election was the dirtiest since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“Sunday’s result is very painful for United Russia, which wasn’t expecting this at all,” said Peter Gysling, a correspondent for Swiss radio in Moscow.
“In 2007, it ran away with two-thirds of votes – this time it hasn’t even got half.”
At a government meeting, Putin emphasised that a simple majority of 226 was enough to pass most legislation and suggested it was sufficient to maintain the stability he says he has helped secure for Russia.
While United Russia can continue to govern without needing to form alliances, in several regions, notably at the country’s peripheries, it sometimes struggled to gain more than 30 per cent of the vote.
Gysling said United Russia’s loss of seats combined with the drop in voter turnout – down three percentage points on 2007 to 60.2 per cent – reflected a certain weariness among the electorate.
“Dissatisfaction is growing at the heart of the population, which is confronted with serious problems in areas such as health, pensions, training and education, in addition to the infrastructure,” he said.
On Monday night, several thousand people protested against Putin and his party in the largest opposition rally in years, which ended with Moscow police detaining some of the activists.
Estimates of the number of protesters at the rally ranged from 5,000 to 10,000. They chanted “Russia without Putin” and accused his party of stealing votes.
A group of several hundred marched toward the Central Elections Commission near the Kremlin, but were stopped by riot police and taken away in buses.
“The vote shows that, this time, it’s not only the issue of oligarchs which riles the population but the administration, where corruption is only getting worse,” Eric Hoesli, a journalist and expert on Russia, told swissinfo.ch.
The irony, he said, was that the winners from all of this were the Communist Party, “which United Russia has gone to a lot of trouble over the past 12 years to get rid of”.
Many of the votes were cast in protest against United Russia rather than in support of communist ideals because, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party is seen by some Russians as the only credible opposition force.
The Communist Party now has 92 Duma seats, up from 57 – a voter share of 19.1 per cent. Official projections put the left-leaning Just Russia on 64 seats, up from 38, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist LDPR on 56, up from 40.
The other three parties on the ballot fell short of the five per cent needed to gain even token representation in the Duma.
Opposition parties say the election was unfair from the start because of authorities’ support for United Russia with cash, influence and television air time.
International monitors said the election administration lacked independence, most media were biased and state authorities interfered unduly at different levels.
Heidi Tagliavini, head of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said that of the 150 polling stations where the counting was observed, “34 were assessed to be very bad”.
Russia’s only independent election monitoring group, Golos, which is funded by United States and European grants, had come under heavy official pressure. Its website was incapacitated by hackers on Sunday and its director Lilya Shibanova and her deputy had their cell phone numbers, email and social media accounts hacked.
Shibanova was also detained at Moscow airport for 12 hours on Saturday and had her laptop confiscated.
“The weekend offered a taste of what the opposition can expect from now until the presidential election in March,” Gysling said. “It’s going to be a difficult time.”
Eric Hoesli believes non-governmental organisations enjoy very limited support among the general population, which considers them too pro-Western.
“The opposition is instead more in the reaction of the intellectual elite and the burgeoning urban middle class to how Putin and [current President Dmitri] Medvedev switch power. They have misjudged the situation, because people are angry about this demonstration of cynicism and self-importance,” he said.
Putin has promised that after the presidential vote he would make Medvedev, whom he handpicked for the presidency, prime minister.
Hoesli thinks it will be Medvedev who will pay the greatest price.
“He was the head of the parliamentary electoral campaign – which failed. That won’t make his position any easier, a position which had already been weakened by his preprogrammed move to prime minister, which is making more and more people angry.”
(With input from Isabelle Eichenberger)