Russia went to the polls on Sunday to determine the future composition of its parliament. The Kremlin-backed United Russia party, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, received 50 percent of the vote—down significantly from 64 percent in 2007. After losing its 2/3 majority in the Duma, United Russia will no longer have the ability to change Russia’s constitution without formally co-opting at least part of the country’s pliant, and in some cases openly pro-Kremlin, opposition.
Russia’s only independent election monitoring organization, Golos, recorded 1,300 irregularities during Sunday’s vote, despite being barred from many polling stations. State media and law enforcement agencies exerted significant pressure on Golos immediately preceding the election. Last Friday, the group was fined $1,000 for publishing a map that documented accusations of unlawful campaigning—most of which were directed against United Russia. That same day, Golos’s offices in Siberia were raided and an influential state-owned television channel aired a documentary suggesting that the organization seeks to foment civil unrest in Russia akin to the Arab Spring. Then on Saturday its director was detained for several hours.
In Chechnya—which is administered by former warlord and persistent human rights violator Ramzan Kadyrov—turnout was 94 percent two hours before the polls closed and, according to a preliminary vote count, United Russia received 99.5 percent. Meanwhile, an early count in Moscow gave United Russia over 46 percent, although a credible exit poll estimated that the party would receive 27.6 percent.
Still, United Russia’s overall performance is consistent with recent public opinion polls. Roughly half the electorate backs the party. This support, however, is largely the result of an uneven playing field. Real opposition parties don’t receive any airtime on Russian television, unless they’re being attacked for supposed corruption or links to the West. Moreover, as the party of power, United Russia abuses its administrative resources. For example, local officials often promise subsidies to factories and companies whose employees vote for United Russia. Sunday’s election may have been free but it certainly wasn’t fair. Yet this, too, will change as the regime’s popularity continues to decline. Because of the Kremlin’s need to demonstrate overwhelming support for Putin, particularly after its favored party’s poor showing this weekend, Russia’s presidential election next March will be neither free nor fair.