By Habibe Ozdal
Russians voted Sunday to elect the State Duma, the lower chamber of chamber of the bicameral legislature. The election was widely seen as a test for Putin’s presidential candidacy. The results of the Duma elections had many repercussions, but eventually nothing is surprising since the results are very much in line with the outcomes of the surveys that were conducted before the elections. Indeed, polls show that public support for the United Russia party started with 60 percent and gradually decreased toward the elections. Even polls published by “government-friendly” pollsters presumed that United Russia would win 48.5 percent; the Communist Party, 19.8 percent; A Just Russia, 12.8 percent; and the Liberal Democratic Party, 11.42 percent.
A total of 110 million Russian citizens, including 2 million expatriates scattered around the world, were eligible to vote in Sunday’s election. The turnout remained limited at 60 percent. As a result, with over 96% of the vote counted, the ruling party could only get49.54%. Each of the Duma’s three opposition parties -the communists, the social democratic A Just Russia and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party- increased their share of the vote, with 19%, 13% and nearly 12% respectively. Moreover, according to these numbers the distribution is going to be as follow; the United Russia party 238 seats, the Communist Party 92 seats, A Just Russia 64 seats and the Liberal Democratic Party 56 seats. The leading party will enjoy a simple majority in parliament voting sessions but no longer the two-thirds it needs to alter the constitution.
Results are being evaluated as an opportunity for a more vocal Duma. It seems for many people that in the immediate future the Duma could become at least a more vocal place. Moreover, many Western analysts believe that United Russia has lost its supermajority power to change the constitution, and will need coalitions to do so. It is also claimed that this will make the three opposition parties inside the Duma slightly more likely to oppose Putin. However, in reality the recent situation is not a “once upon a time” chance. Indeed, all of the opposition parties were already represented in the Duma but had also been very “loyal” to the ruling party so far. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats for instance never vote against the government. Furthermore, opposition parties have united in a very limited number of cases.
In explaining the loss of the leading party, the economic situation and corruption probably come first. According to the poll conducted by the respected research center Levada Centerin May 2011, 52 percent of respondents said that there is more corruption among senior officials in Russia today than there was in the 1990s, compared to just 16 percent who gave that response in 2007. In addition, the number of Russians unhappy with government policies to fight against inflation has more than doubled since 1999 from 25 percent then to 56 percent now, while the share of Russians who blame the government for weak social support increased from 16 percent to 37 percent during the same twelve-year period, according to Levada. The share of those dissatisfied with government efforts to combat unemployment grew from 18 percent to 37 percent between 1999 and 2011, while the number of those unhappy with government corruption jumped from three percent to 30 percent.
The comparative economic growth and political stability explains the support United Russia still has. On the other hand, the lack of real opposition parties with alternative programs also strengthens the hand of the leading party.
The indirect effect of the Duma elections will possibly be to serve as a justification for the presidential elections by arguing that Russia is a democratic country in which public opinion shapes political life. In other words, Putin will use United Russia’s lower than expected results to argue that the election system in Russia is honest and as an argument to counter critics who are already convinced the presidential elections will be rigged.
What It Means for Putin
Putin’s election as president on March 4 has not been jeopardized since he is more popular than United Russia and there is no real alternative to him. Though Putin’s popularity rating has dropped from the high levels he regularly enjoyed after first coming to power in 1999, they still remain higher than any other politician in the country, coming in at around 50% according to most surveys.
Despite the growing and very real public disillusionment with his rule, Putin remains the most popular politician in the country. Moreover, during upcoming three months, the Kremlin will most probably become more careful in using its administrative resources more effectively to make sure there are no similar situations in the presidential election. In other words, Putin would not leave the result of the presidential elections to chance.
On the other hand, the current political system indeed brought stability and prosperity after the chaos and poverty of the 1990s. Despite criticism of Putin’s policies, both supporters and opponents acknowledge his perceived achievement in restoring Russia’s standing in the world following Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic 1990s decade. Moreover, the basic components of Russian society would differ when they vote in the Duma elections and when they vote for the presidency. Indeed, the public can punish political parties for their policies and easily turn to alternative parties. However when it comes to the presidency, it is the foreign and domestic politics as well as the conditions that individuals live in that influence the public’s voting choices. In that sense, political stability and economic growth comes to the forefront. For the Russians, all those components suggest Putin.
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies