Putin Didn’t Suffer a Resounding Defeat

Although support for his United Russia party dropped, Vladimir Putin is still very much a dominant figure in Russian politics.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia addresses the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland, January 28, 2009
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia addresses the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland, January 28, 2009 (WEF/Sebastian Derungs)

After Sunday’s parliamentary election, there have been accusations of voter fraud, protests in Russian cities and headlines in Western press of Vladimir Putin’s ruling party suffering a resounding defeat at the polls. It’s not true.

There has been fraud and there have been demonstrations but United Russia is still dominant and Putin likely to win next year’s presidential election. His approval rating hovers safely north of 60 percent but his party’s popularity has declined in the last couple of years from more than 60 percent in late 2009 to just over 50 percent today.

At the polls Sunday, United Russia won less than half of the vote which corresponds roughly to the party’s performance in opinion polls. Unless one believes they were all rigged as well, it’s difficult to imagine that the election fraud that’s been reported in foreign news media was pervasive. Far more likely is that half of the Russian electorate still has confidence in United Russia and a majority of Russians by far like their prime minister who is soon to be president again.

What’s received less attention than the humiliation of United States in the West is that the communists doubled their share of the vote up to 20 percent.

Some Russian liberals have tried to explain this away as a “protest vote” on the part of mainly older workers and pensioners but that is hard to believe. The communists are very clear about their intention which is to revive the old Soviet Union in every way. The voters who’ve switched allegiances from United Russia to the Stalin apologists aren’t modern, forward looking, entrepreneurial young Russians but nostalgic old people who are struggling to keep pace with the modernization that’s happening in Russia right now.

The Russian economy has expanded rapidly under Putin’s leadership. It recovered quickly from a sharp contraction in 2008 and 2009 and is on its way to 5 percent growth rates again. Attempt to diversify the economy away from a heavy reliance on hydrocarbon exports have stalled somewhat but the trend of demographic decline has been brought to a halt. Russia’s state finances are in a healthy state despite the cronyism and corruption that is endemic in all layers of government.

There are Russians who seek a return to the paternalistic state and they voted for the communists instead of United Russia on Sunday. If theirs was a “protest vote,” it wasn’t the sort of protest that young Russians staged in Moscow on Monday. They’re angry about the abuses of power and nepotism at the top of the political hierarchy that sits in the Kremlin but this discontent isn’t widespread.

The liberal Russians who regard Putin as a modern day czar who will stop at nothing to increase his own personal power never voted for United Russia anyway. Their centrist, Westernized parties usually don’t clear the 7 percent election threshold. Hence, third party nationalists and socialists came in third and fourth in Sunday’s election respectively. The nationalists describe themselves as “liberal” but aren’t. The social democrats in Fair Russia aren’t a threat to Putin’s supremacy and will probably endorse his presidential candidacy next year as they did in 2007.

The three opposition parties — communists, nationalists and socialists — have one thing in common. They all claim to oppose the “wild,” freewheeling corporate capitalism that was unleashed in Russia during the 1990s. They all criticize the ruling party for caring too little about pensioners and the poor and leaving Russia’s welfare state to rot and perish.

This isn’t the sort of criticism one would expect from cosmopolitan youngsters who want democracy and transparency. That’s because most of them don’t care enough to become politically active for it. Young people in Russia are better educated than their counterparts in other BRIC countries, their job prospects are fairly solid and they’re not facing the sort of huge pension obligations Westerners in their twenties and thirties face. They may not always approve of Putin’s ways (hence his partnership with Dmitri Medvedev) but they certainly don’t sit around reminiscing about the good old days that weren’t.

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