MOSCOW — Widespread discontent, fueled by a massively unpopular pension reform, has sent the approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling party tumbling to historic lows — just seven months after Mr. Putin triumphantly won a re-election campaign meant to cement his grip on power.
But in a development that is likely to alarm Mr. Putin’s critics at home and abroad, the beneficiaries of his plunging poll numbers are the old-line Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), whose leader often urges the Kremlin to carry out nuclear attacks against Moscow’s foes. The left and right fringe parties made big gains in recent regional elections, embarrassing Mr. Putin’s United Russia party.
For a former KGB agent whose ability to seize and hold power, Mr. Putin’s new political vulnerability could prove particularly damaging.
“United Russia’s aura of invincibility has now vanished, and voters have seen that Putin is not some powerful wizard,” said political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, a well-known political commentator here.
Forty-five percent of Russians now say they would back Mr. Putin in hypothetical presidential elections, down from 67 percent at the start of the year, according to the Public Opinion Foundation, a Kremlin-linked pollster. Support for United Russia is at 32 percent, an almost 20 percentage point decline since January, according to the foundation.
“People are so fed up with United Russia that they are ready to vote for a party of clowns,” said Ilya Yashin, a Kremlin critic, noting the LDPR’s electoral successes.
While Mr. Putin continues to cut a wide swath on the international scene, his problems are rooted much closer to home. Analysts attribute much of the dramatic decline in support for Mr. Putin to a law pushed through by United Russia to increase the national retirement age by five years, from 55 to 60 for women and 60 to 65 for men. Mr. Putin, in a televised address in August, said Russia, with its aging population, risked economic collapse if the costs of the government retirement programs were not scaled back.
Few Russians were convinced. About 90 percent of the population oppose the law, according to an opinion poll by the Levada Center, an independent pollster based in Moscow. In a country where the average life expectancy for men is just 66, many fear they will not live long enough to collect the pension benefits they have earned.
In a poll result that caused shock waves in Moscow, the LDPR, whose platform is an odd mix of social conservatism, nostalgic nationalism and heavy state intervention in the economy, scored a landslide victory over United Russia in last month’s election for governor in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s Far East, taking 70 percent of the vote. The United Russia candidate received just under 28 percent. The LDPR, the third-biggest party in parliament, also won in the runoff election for governor of the Vladimir region near Moscow, garnering 20 percent more of the vote than United Russia.
The vehemently anti-Western LDPR is led by 72-year-old Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran firebrand politician and frequent failed presidential candidate who has over his long career urged nuclear attacks on Turkey and Japan, supported the carpet-bombing of Germany and praised the suspected poisoning of Russian spy and defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Notorious for his verbal outbursts and confrontational style, Mr. Zhirinovsky this year proposed dropping a nuclear weapon on the Ukrainian president’s residence.
“A small bomb. Not a big Hiroshima, a small one,” he said on state television. “Radiation will be minimal.”
Over the years, he has also pledged to provide free vodka, legalize polygamy and clone famous Russians such as composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Mr. Zhirinovsky hailed the recent results as evidence that his party was on the right path. “This is a deserved victory. We have also had the support of the electorate,” he said.
Some analysts suggested, however, that the LDPR’s electoral success reflected a surge in protest voting.
“People are sick of the status quo and they want change for change’s sake,” Mr. Oreshkin said.
The Communist Party, which ruled the Soviet Union for seven decades and remains the largest opposition party on the left, also scored big wins in local parliamentary elections in central Russia and Siberia last month. Its candidate was prevented from taking control of Vladivostok, a major port city in Russia’s Far East, only by suspected vote-rigging in favor of Mr. Putin’s candidate.
Andrei Ishchenko, the Communist Party challenger, was defeated in elections for the regional governor’s seat despite leading Mr. Putin’s candidate by 2 percentage points with 99 percent of the vote counted. In an near-unprecedented development, the results of the vote were annulled by the government-controlled election committee after street protests. Another vote will take place before the end of the year.
The recent election results are United Russia’s biggest setbacks at the polls since the party was formed in 2001. The losses are doubly surprising because most analysts say that under Mr. Putin’s carefully managed political system, rival parties are allowed to enter Russia’s parliament to provide the illusion of a functioning democracy but are expected to adhere to strict rules in return for massive state funding. Those rules include a ban on contesting elections too fiercely and supporting the Kremlin on key policy issues.
“This is a very serious challenge for the Kremlin, and the presidential administration will be carrying out brainstorming to try and somehow fix the political and electoral system,” said Vladimir Slatinov, a political analyst with the Humanitarian and Political Studies Institute in Moscow.
Vedomosti, a respected Russian business newspaper, reported that the Kremlin was seeking ways to punish the Communist Party and the LDPR for their refusals to stay in place. The electoral losses also triggered the mass dismissals of incumbent United Russia governors with falling voter support, as the Kremlin attempted to shore up its position in the regions.
Help from the calendar
Mr. Putin is getting a break from the electoral calendar: Russian parliamentary polls aren’t due until 2021, and the next presidential election — in which Mr. Putin is supposed to be ineligible to run — isn’t scheduled until 2024.
Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist widely seen as the Kremlin’s harshest critic, has been unable to capitalize on the growing unrest. Although Mr. Navalny has built up an impressive nationwide network of supporters, he is barred from forming a political party and has been subject to relentless attacks by state-controlled media. Just 3 percent of Russians say they trust Mr. Navalny, according to the Levada Center.
But rising distrust of the government still threatens to erupt into political turbulence, analysts say.
Some Kremlin critics fear that a politically wounded Mr. Putin may be seeking a foreign military adventure to boost his ratings. When Russian troops seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Putin’s popularity skyrocketed after he faced large-scale opposition protests in Moscow.
“The authorities could again find themselves on the back foot,” Vitali Shkliarov, a Russian political consultant, wrote in an article for Republic, a Russian-language current affairs website. “Another ‘geopolitical success’ remains, perhaps, one of the few strategies for Putin.”