Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suffered a setback last weekend on his march to resume the Russian presidency. The weak showing for his United Russia party in Sunday’s parliamentary elections raised questions whether his return to high executive office will be as smooth as expected.
Mr. Putin’s party could only muster around 50 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent in 2007. This translates into a loss of 77 seats in the Duma, and with them his party’s 70 percent supermajority. Granted, the opposition does not pose a serious challenge in parliament. The rest of the vote was fractured between various opposition movements, with the second-place Communist Party netting just under 20 percent of the vote. There are enough smaller parties aligned with United Russia to prevent legislative gridlock, but as Russian President Dmitri Medvedev noted at a post election rally, “That’s parliamentarianism.”
Foreign observers and local poll watchers documented the most brazen forms of electoral fraud. The election saw allegations of ballot-box stuffing, intimidation at polling places, bribery and cyber-attacks on election watchdogs. Communist leader Gennadi A. Zyuganov called the elections “unprecedented in their filth, pressure and falsification.” Even our own secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, voiced “serious concerns” about the conduct of the election, saying, “Russian voters deserve a full investigation of all credible reports of electoral fraud and manipulation, and we hope in particular that then Russian authorities will take action on reports that come forward.”
Some irregularities stood out, such as the 99.5 percent vote for United Russia in Chechnya. Any such lopsided vote raises questions, and in this case, Mr. Putin oversaw a brutal war against separatist rebels in Chechnya during his first term. It’s hard to believe the Chechen people are so overwhelmingly grateful to the “butcher of Grozny.”
The surprise in the Sixth State Duma elections wasn’t that the vote was rigged, but that it was not rigged well. Over the past 11 years, observers became accustomed to thinking of Mr. Putin as a figure without peer in Russia: dominant, manipulative and relentless. Wealthy oligarchs who fell afoul of his government wound up in jail. Street demonstrators against his rule were hustled off in police vans. Investigative journalists who made too many inquiries turned up dead. Surely the former KGB agent who presided over Russia with such certainty, clarity and ruthlessness could see to it that he wasn’t embarrassed by something so pro forma as an election.
The presidential election is scheduled for March 2012, and Mr. Putin already has said he expects it to be “dirty.” His only declared opponent thus far is Mr. Zyuganov, who has little chance of winning even in a fair election. Mr. Putin can point to solid achievements in his first two terms from 2000-2008, including strong economic growth, a 13 percent flat tax, imposing domestic order and restoring Russian influence in world affairs. Sunday’s results, however, show that many Russians are simply tired of Mr. Putin. They have no clear alternative, but they know they don’t want him.
It’s unlikely that a new champion will emerge sometime in the next three months, and Mr. Putin is likely to regain the presidency. Whether he will maintain his legitimacy is another question.