Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Putin Takes an Electoral Shellacking and No One Notices

Russia’s regional and municipal elections on Sunday resulted in a shellacking of Putin’s United Russia that few noticed. Putin’s United Russia failed to achieve majorities in seven of the twelve regional elections. In Kirov and Kaliningrad, United Russia got less than forty percent. These results were overshadowed by events in Japan and the Middle East and few observers know how to interpret them.

To understand the failure of United Russia to win majorities, consider a U.S. election in which Republican candidates are banned, and Democratic candidates vie against candidates of the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Mountain Party and THEY FAIL TO WIN A MAJORITY. This was the case in Russia on Sunday.

United Russia candidates contended against the shop-worn Communists and the “powerhouse” “Patriots of Russia” and the “Right Cause.” Candidates from the crippled Yabloko party and independent candidate were largely excluded from the election lists. In all, fifty percent of candidates from parties without seats in legislatures and forty percent of independent candidates were not allowed to register for elections. Only United Russia candidates were allowed in the media or granted permission to rent space for meetings. Election violations in favor of United Russia were recorded in virtually all precincts.

These regional and municipal elections are a dress rehearsal for December’s elections to the State Duma. We can expect that Putin and United Russia will intensify their election tricks to exclude serious rivals such as Gary Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov.

We know little about the “kitchen” in which Russian public opinion sampling is done, notably by the Levada Institute. Their “ratings” of Medvedev, Putin, and the Russian government are supposed to be honest. They do show Putin’s ratings falling from the stratosphere of 80-88 percent to 72 percent in January. In the last year, the disapproval rating of the “Russian government” rose from 43 to 47 percent. These are ratings U.S. politicians would die for, but they do show erosion at the top.

If these ratings are accurate, it is unclear why the ratings of Putin and the Russian government remain in the stratosphere (relative to the rest of the world), despite a recent terror attack, inflation, high unemployment, and the after effects of a severe economic crisis. Putin has always used his high ratings to justify whatever he does as the will of the people.

If we look at results not associated with personalities, we see an emerging picture of dissatisfaction, beginning in 2007. In 2006, 14 percent of Russians thought “state power was weak.” This figure fell below ten percent in 2008 and 2009 and currently stands at ten percent. Russians may be getting tired of the “iron hand” of the Russian state. In 2006, 33 percent of Russians were worried about corruption, bribe-taking, and arbitrary behavior of officials. Now, this figure approaches fifty percent. As in other countries, the main concerns of Russians are rising prices, poverty and unemployment. In any other country, the government and the national leader would be held responsible. Why is this not the case in Russia? Either the Russian people are forgiving of their leaders or the Putin/Medvedev ratings are exaggerated.

In any case, we can expect extreme brutality, fraud and intimidation in the upcoming December elections. I would not like to be in the shoes of those brave figures who stand up to Putin and his United Russia.

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