Russia protests elections but Putin is safe … for now

Russians are angry, but there is no viable alternative to Putin yet. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

The lead-up to the elections for the State Duma in Russia on December 4 gave no hint of the turmoil that was to follow. In the days after the voting, large numbers of Russians took to the streets in cities and towns across the country to protest against what they saw to be a fraudulent electoral process, and to demand the cancellation and re-running of the elections.

While the protests have garnered comparisons from some to the Arab Spring movements, as any protest that occurs in 2011 must, it’s unlikely these demonstrations will effect much, if any, change in the way Russia is governed.

Elections firm, but not fair

The numbers involved in the demonstrations remain rubbery – estimates for those taking part in Moscow range from 25,000 to 100,000 – but it’s clear these have been the biggest demonstrations seen in the capital for more than a decade. Their potential significance is enhanced by the fact the demonstrations have had a distinctly anti-Putin tenor, and that Putin has announced his intention to run for president again in the forthcoming March elections. Some see these protests as the first real crack in the system of rule created by Putin in the early 2000s.

But does this popular mobilisation really foreshadow significant political change in Russia?

Although the protests were triggered by electoral results, the evidence of widespread manipulation on election day is mixed. Many people have come forward with personal stories of vote rigging – seeing already completed ballots awaiting insertion into the ballot box, people having to take pictures of their completed ballots to show their employers or party officials, group voting, and the like – but it is not clear how extensive this has been.

International observers declared there were significant problems in the administration of the vote count in 34 of 115 monitored polling stations. Such problems included indications of ballot box stuffing in 17 polling stations, but many of the problems observed were procedural rather than necessarily involving vote tampering. The results of the election are also not consistent with extensive fraudulent manipulation.

The four parties elected to the Duma received the following percentage of votes:

  • United Russia: 49.3%
  • Communist Party 19.2%
  • Just Russia 13.2%
  • Liberal Democratic Party 11.7%

There are two things to note about this. First, support for United Russia fell from 64.3% and 315 seats in 2007 to 49.3% and 238 seats in the latest poll. If there was widespread systematic ballot box stuffing, one would have expected less of a decline in reported support and in particular United Russia’s vote to have exceeded the 50% mark.

Second, comparison of the vote with public opinion polls conducted by two different polling agencies in Russia shows that the votes for each of the parties differs from the levels of support reported in the polling by only a few percent, and for United Russia the vote was actually under the level of reported support. Fraudulent manipulation appears to have been marginal, and certainly not enough to change the result of the election; United Russia gained the support of the largest proportion of the Russian electorate.

This does not mean the election was fair. The process was clearly slanted in favour of United Russia. Some potential opposition parties were unable to gain registration to run, the media that was far from impartial, there was little independence on the part of the election administration, and close links between United Russia and the state. And although the headlines about the protests have been about the election results, the undercurrent has been about the system.

Putin will stay

In the short term, achievement of the protestors’ demand for new elections is unlikely to be met, even if the protests can be sustained into the future and grow larger. Although President Medvedev has called for an investigation of the claims of electoral rigging, this is more likely to lead to the sacking of local officials than it is to the holding of new elections.

In the longer term, central to this question is the presidential election in March. If Putin were to be defeated in that election, this would represent a significant change in the system as well as opening the door to even further change.

But his defeat is unlikely. There is certainly a wave of opposition evident in the current protests, and Putin’s announcement that he would run in March instead of current incumbent president Dmitrii Medvedev was greeted by many with disappointment. But Putin remains the most popular politician in the country, a reputation built on an appearance of effective management, especially in the economic realm.

His position is also bolstered by the fact that there is no obvious alternative to him. Medvedev has eschewed running against his patron, the communist leader Ziuganov has run before and is widely seen as an unattractive candidate, and the liberals have never been able to find anyone with wide appeal. Oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov has said he will stand, but it is unlikely his business background will enable him to escape the odour of corruption that usually is seen to surround billionaires in Russia.

Of course the demonstrations may throw up a potential national leader to challenge Putin, but such a person is likely to lack the infrastructure needed to mount a serious challenge to the current administration.

It may eventuate that Putin will be forced into a run-off ballot for the first time (if neither candidate receives 50% plus one of the votes, a run off between the top two candidates is held). This would certainly be a blow to him, but he is still likely to win the election.

The question then becomes what Putin does. Will he interpret the protests as reflecting a need for some liberalisation of the system? Or will he see them as indications of the need for a further tightening up of controls?

The initial reaction – reflected in the absence of the use of force against the most recent protests and the unprecedented exposure they have been given in the Russian media – suggests the former response. But it is early days yet, and this may be simply an attempt to get over the initial current crisis.

And those hoping for an overhaul of Russia’s political system may have to wait a little longer still.