Last Sunday Russia had its last electoral test before this year’s parliamentary vote, and these elections again brought some useful lessons for the governing elite. As I have argued earlier, these local votes are, more or less, always set as tests for a certain policy, governmental philosophy or future goal. I think this one was designed to show whether United Russia has the strength to maintain its lead in the State Duma in December without serious electoral fraud. Rampant rigging of the Duma election is unlikely, for it is also undesirable for the Russian elite. Most importantly because it would contradict the slow political liberalisation that the tandem and some liberals in the government seem to have embarked upon. A considerable deviation from this policy would probably mean an uncontrollable strengthening of liberals (both inside and outside the government). A third problem would be the disapproval of the West, which Russia traditionally does not care about, but which would also be problematic in view of the recent thaw in international relations. So, United Russia had to face a test, and it failed. And, oddly enough, this may hurt Medvedev more than Putin. What exactly do the results teach us?
It would of course be difficult to guess the exact quantity of electoral fraud (considering also the quasi-monopolisation of resources in most of the districts), but I am pretty much sure that even if there were similarities with the 2009 October local elections, the result of these votes stands much closer to the reality than those did. The results showed considerably worse ratings in many regions than earlier predictions: in eight regions out of twelve United Russia did not even pass 50%, let alone 60%. Its showing was particularly bad in the Tver and Kirov regions where it stayed under 40%, much less than even the most sceptical predictions. More importantly, the rating of the party in the majority of the regions was considerably lower than four years ago. This is clearly not a team preparing to defend its constitutional majority in December.
As Brian Whitmore states in his comment on the elections, Sunday has direct implications on the Duma election and on the presidential vote as well. I agree with that. However, I think Whitmore is shy of deriving the most logical consequence. As I have blogged earlier, Vladimir Putin may soon find his present means inadequate for keeping things under control, which in turn might prompt his return to the presidency. I think Putin needs no better alarm than Sunday’s results to realise that being the de facto leader of United Russia may soon prove not to be enough to remain in charge.
Putin will have three options in the remaining nine months. One, to announce his return to the presidency, thereby ensuring his legal supremacy and broadening his administrative means. Two, to rig the election to the same extent as in 2009, thereby undertaking all the risks outlined above of abandoning the present policies. Three, to reform United Russia in nine months, thereby putting on a fight with a bunch of local party strongmen and potentially the siloviki, just months before the presidential vote.
I let you decide which one is the easy way to go.