MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party has won national parliamentary elections with a significantly increased majority, a result that cements Putin's total control over the country's political life and which potentially grants him the ability to change Russia's constitution. With 93% of the vote counted, the party, United Russia, was shown to have taken 343 of 450 seats in the lower house of parliament, a sizable increase on its previous 238 seats.
The vote was marked by an exceptionally low turnout of just 40 percent, illustrating a sense among many Russians that the election was of little importance in a country where the Kremlin determines all major policy decisions and elections are seen as stage-managed.
Still, the result reinforced the political system engineered by the Kremlin under Putin over the past 16 years. The two parties that took second and third place are nominally in opposition to the Russian leader but in practice almost invariably support the Kremlin line. Reflecting the strength of nationalist feeling in Russia following the seizure of Crimea, the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party came second to United Russia with around 15 percent of the vote, a strong showing for the party that is led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a man regularly described as Russia’s Donald Trump.
Russia’s Communist Party came a close third, while the anti-Putin opposition failed to break the 5% barrier to enter parliament, losing its only lawmaker there. The win gives United Russia a two-thirds majority that allows it to amend the constitution.
United Russia's head, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared victory and Putin congratulated the party, saying it showed "political maturity" among Russians.
The outcome was not surprising. With the country strongly behind Putin -- whose approval ratings stand around 80 percent -- and the opposition effectively sidelined, the vote had been described by some observers as the “dullest” election in Russian history. The only surprise was the scale of United Russia's win, overcoming polls suggesting it would have a poor showing.
That was in stark contrast to the last time Russians voted for their parliament in 2011, when significant vote-rigging prompted huge street protests. Tens of thousands marched in Moscow demanding Putin’s resignation in what was the biggest popular challenge to his rule that the Russian leader has faced.
Such upheavals seem now all but impossible, underlining the vivid shift in Russia’s political atmosphere since then.
Eager to avoid a repeat of 2011’s trouble, this time the Kremlin has sought to create an impression that the vote would be clean. It removed the head of Russia’s elections commission -- pejoratively nicknamed the “wizard” for his ability to make the numbers add up in Putin’s favor, and replacing him with a respected human rights defender. Confident the country’s beleaguered opposition was without traction among the public, authorities had also opened up a small breathing space for them during the elections allowing them to field more candidates and to take part in TV debates.
Those moves led many to predict the elections would not see significant amounts of voting fraud. With popular sentiment aggressively pro-Putin and most Russians convinced of the impossibility of political change, there appeared little need for vote rigging. How true that was was still being debated on Monday. Following the vote across Russia's 11 time zones, it was clear that the vote had been far from pristine, with growing reports of cheating and numerous videos appearing to show ballot-stuffing, but there were few claims that the violations had had any decisive impact. While threatening to annul some results where cheating was recorded, the head of Russia’s elections commission, Ella Pamfilova, said was sure the vote had been legitimate, the TASS state news agency reported.
Although the vote may prove to be cleaner than in the past, critics said it was not fairer. Under Putin, the Kremlin has neutered Russia’s political debates, creating a pseudo-opposition and marginalizing actual opponents by jailing or blocking them from running, largely barring them from television, and harassing their campaigns.
The parliament itself has become a rubber-stamping body, directed on how to act on most issues by the Kremlin and offering no opposition on major decisions. Before today the unauthorized opposition, the so-called “nonsystem opposition”, had only one lawmaker in the parliament, and its leaders and activists have been continuously harassed and occasionally physically attacked.
This year, as part of the experiment to lend greater legitimacy to the elections, anti-Putin parties were given greater leeway. That step, however, seemed to reflect the Kremlin’s confidence in its position rather than any newfound political liberalism. With the country wrapped in nationalist sentiment following Crimea’s annexation and intensified repression of dissent, there is virtually no desire for major political change. Yabloko and Parnas, the two leading parties running on anti-Putin platforms, both failed to get above the 5%, with the early results suggesting that Russia's parliament would now not have a single openly anti-Putin lawmaker in parliament.
With the final result never in doubt, there was a sensation of the system going through the motions and the majority of Russians appeared to opt out of the vote, viewing it as of little relevance.
Many Russians said they can’t remember a more lackluster election run. Even the Kremlin official tasked with managing the vote, Vladimir Volodin, has described United Russia’s campaign as “sterile”, telling the business paper RBC that he believed the tactic was not to produce enthusiasm for the party but just to bring off a technically irreproachable campaign.
The apathy was reflected in a record low turnout, at 40.37% the lowest since Putin took power in 2000 and 20% lower than in the contested election in 2012. In Moscow, the turnout was just 33%. In the days prior to voting, a startling number of Russians were not even aware the elections were happening.
The sharp drop in participation compared with 2011, suggested that Russians' beliefs in what was politically possible in the country had narrowed considerably.
At polling stations in Moscow on Sunday, many voters said they expected the vote to be cleaner than in previous years, though few expected it would be totally without fraud. Many, even those voting for the ruling party, were ambivalent about whether the vote showed Russia had democracy. Asked whether he felt Russia was democratic, one man pulled face and made a half-and-half gesture with his hand.
“Does Russia have democracy?,” Vyacheslav Aleksandrovich, 63, said before voting. “Maybe. Probably we have some kind of democracy. I don’t know, I haven’t seen any other kind.”
Others were more definite, saying that although they did not believe they had full-fledged democracy, it was important to vote to keep what elements of it still exist in Russia.
“At the very least, it opposes the trend of authoritarianism that has appeared in Russia recently,” Lev Karakhan, a television producer accompanied by his children said after voting.