By Charles Kershaw
The recent elections in Russia brought about surprising results and troubling consequences. Although polls were held across the country, the city council elections in Moscow had the most impactful results. Moreover, they occurred amidst brutal crackdowns by police on demonstrators; the biggest in almost a decade.
For many years, Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, has had a firm grip on power and a strong majority in parliament. Yet, in a surprising upset, United Russia barely held onto their majority. They lost 13 seats on the Moscow city council, going down from 38 to 25. What might have been an entirely unremarkable municipal election has caused both pro and anti-Kremlin supporters to hail it as a victory. Alexei Navalny, one of the main leaders of the opposition, attributed the loss of seats to the tactic of “smart voting”: voting for candidates who had the best chance of beating a candidate supported by the Kremlin. On the other hand, Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed the vote was “successful for United Russia” and that the party had “demonstrated its political leadership”.
All this begs the question of how beneficial this election has been for either side. Will Putin and his party continue to hold power for the foreseeable future, unabashed by protests and a loss of seats? Or is this the beginning of the end for the President and his party?
Well, things are perhaps not so clear cut. Granted, this is a victory for the opposition, albeit a small one. It is worth noting that despite the increase in support for opposition candidates, voter turnout was exceedingly low at only 22%. It is possible that due to continuous accusations of vote tampering in elections, primarily through ballot-stuffing, the electorate question the validity of the Russian democratic process and suspect that United Russia will stay in power as they have done since the early 2000s. Moreover, many of the opposition candidates were barred from standing. Putin dismissed concerns over the matter, stating that “it is quality not quantity that is important”.
The fact that these parties managed to win seats is marred by the fact that the parties that could stand, apart from the liberal Yabloko party, are part of Russia’s systemic opposition: parties that are mostly loyal to United Russia in order to give the appearance of democracy. Thus, in actuality Putin’s grasp on government is much the same as always.
However, what it does prove is that smart voting has been effective and the elections further prove a rise in support for pro-democracy candidates. United Russia’s popularity has started to wane. The opposition can see this as a victory, if only a small one.
Image by Andrey Filippov via Creative Commons