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Analysis & Opinion
05.12.11 A Pyrrhic Victory?
By Tai Adelaja

The less-than-stellar showing by the United Russia Party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev during Sunday's elections was nothing like the “shellacking” suffered by Democrats in last year's midterm congressional elections. But the ruling party's lackluster performance has forced its leaders to engage in unusual introspection even as they tried to put a bold face on the outcome of the elections. Sunday's elections have been widely touted as a referendum on Putin's future, given his September decision to return to the Kremlin next year. It is also unclear how the results will impact the future of president Medvedev, who led the party's ticket and is expected to become prime minister.

With over 95 percent of the ballots counted, the United Russia Party appeared to have lost significant support among voters, gaining only about 50 percent of the vote, far below the 64 percent it won in the 2007 parliamentary elections. Most of what appeared to be protest votes went to left-leaning and welfare-oriented political parties. The Communist Party won almost 20 percent of the vote, twice the number it garnered in the previous Duma elections. The nationalist-leaning Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which held 40 seats, or 8.9 percent of the vote in the previous State Duma, won over 11 percent of the vote, underperforming Just Russia, which received 13.08 percent of the vote.

United Russia leaders have been putting a positive spin on the party’s poor results by trying to compare them with those in other European countries where the ruling parties have sometimes been swept away by the voters' revulsion at the way they managed the global economic crisis. "The United Russia won these elections," declared Boris Gryzlov, the head of United Russia's Duma faction, at a press conference to announce the party's victory at the polls on Sunday. "This is a significant victory," Gryzlov said, adding that the party has demonstrated its viability in Russia compared to political parties in other European countries.

Both Putin and Medvedev appeared at United Russia’s headquarters late Sunday and also sought to downplay the political significance of the party’s poor performance. “The party fared in a dignified way in accordance with its political influence. And the situation that we get in the State Duma reflects the real situation of political forces in the country,” Medvedev said. Putin, who is the former leader of the party, talked about the party preserving “its strength as the leading political party” despite all the difficulties and the responsibility that the party shoulders.

While the elections were also overshadowed by claims of official pressure on voters to cast their ballots in favor of United Russia, the real test, analysts said, would be the presidential election in March. United Russia officially nominated Putin as its candidate for the presidential post on November 27. Earlier, the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of Parliament, approved March 4 as the date for the 2012 presidential elections, signaling the beginning of the election campaign. “Not much would change in terms of economic or political direction of the country before the presidential election,” said Igor Nikolaev, the head of the strategic research department at the FBK auditing company. “We are likely to witness more of the same pre-election promises ahead of the March election.”

In the weeks leading up to the elections, the results of Sunday's vote were largely seen as a done deal, with many opposition parties expressing concerns over possible vote rigging and the use of administrative resources by the ruling United Russia. In Moscow, where United Russia was expected to perform badly, the party won 46.5 percent, according to figures from the Central Election Commission. An exit poll released by the Public Opinion Foundation, or FOM, on Sunday had put the party at 27.5 percent of the votes. The Russian blogosphere seized such discrepancies as evidence that things were not quite right with the way votes were counted. A group of journalists also said they were able to track down blatant vote-rigging by people believed to be working on behalf of the ruling party, reported.

However, analysts like Vyacheslav Nikonov, the head of the pro-Kremlin Politika foundation, said that both the exit polls and initial ballot counts in these elections demonstrate that neither the ruling party nor the Kremlin activated the so-called administrative resources. “The results reflect the real situation in society and demonstrate that part of the electorate has concerns about handing an overwhelming mandate to one political party,” Nikonov said. The party’s performance, he said, had little to do with unpopular measures during the crisis, but was rather a stark reflection of the changing mood in society.

United Russia held a 315-seat majority in the 450-member State Duma, or lower house, going into Sunday’s election. However, the 50 percent showing for the party could mean the party would now have a tougher time rubber-stamping government legislative initiatives, analysts say. "Government economic policies will change to reflect the alignment of new forces in the State Duma,” said Yevgeny Gontmakher, one of the country's leading sociologists. “The growing influence of the opposition parties, while not decisive, will force the authorities to change their behavior."

United Russia’s poor performance could yet lead to a split in the ranks of the party as it now has to take many unpopular decisions pushed to it by welfare-oriented parties, said Valery Mironov, director of the Center of Development, an independent economic research institute that advises the Ministry of Economic Development. Igor Nikolaev, the head of the strategic research department at the FBK auditing company, agreed, saying saying the poor showing could lead to the next Duma taking a raft of unpopular economic decisions that could be ruinous to the Russian economy. "Political parties made promises left and right - to reform the military, improve infrastructure and undertake large-scale projects", Nikolaev said. "Now, its time for reckoning."
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