Vladimir Putin made it crystal clear what he expected out of yesterday’s parliamentary election – a national show of loyalty. Parliament was no place for the opposition. He told shipyard workers in St Petersburg: “If someone wants to watch a show, then they need to go to the circus, the movies or theatre.” This is akin to the Duma speaker’s comment that parliament was no place for debate. Putin naturally thought he would get his way. To combat a boycott of the Duma elections as a popular protest option, he needed to ensure a respectable turnout. It came. It always will, if you tell every bureaucrat, every public sector worker, every regional and local government, student, teacher, policemen, soldier that their job or regional grant or piece of tarmacked road depends on it.
Golos, an EU and US financed Russian vote-monitoring group, clocked up more than 5,300 electoral violations and put them on a map, kartanarusheniy.ru, before that was taken down yesterday by a denial of service attack. Also crippled yesterday were the websites of Ekho Moskvy, Snob.ru, New Times, Livejournal and anyone else wishing to publish real-time evidence about how the vote was being rigged in favour of the ruling party, United Russia. Golos, in particular, faced a concerted campaign of harassment because it showed it was serious. It had 3,000 observers in about half of Russia’s 83 regions. On Saturday its director was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for 12 hours and had her laptop confiscated. The Russian deputy ambassador to Berlin issued a grovelling apology when summoned by the German foreign ministry last month, after a respected German political scientist who had helped Golos was refused entry at the same airport and put in a detention centre, even though he had a valid invitation and visa. But it is all part of the same campaign. Putin compared Golos to Judas, which makes him, by extension, Jesus.
Putin has no serious rivals, except the growing national fatigue with the semi-authoritarian system he created. Even those who welcomed the leadership he provided to stabilise Russia in his first two terms of president are growing weary at the prospect of another two terms, when he will be re-elected in March next year. If Putin’s popularity is on the wane, that of the party he created, United Russia, is in a nosedive. In elections in 2007 it secured a landslide majority of 64.3% of the vote or 315 seats in the Duma. That majority was enhanced by the sort of vote rigging which was out in force yesterday, but if that had been entirely absent, pollsters and independent political analysts say their natural support would today be about 30% – way below what Putin needs to ensure a majority in a quiescent Duma. As it is, three exit polls last night showed a marked drop in support for United Russia. A poll for Russian TV showed 48.5% of support, which would give Putin’s party 220 seats, and two polls, from Vtsiom and the Fom group gave United Russia 48% and 46% respectively.
If confirmed, this spells trouble. United Russia should lose its constitutional majority. Even after the bullying and blatant manipulation (election posters for United Russia bore an uncanny resemblance to the official posters of the Central Election Commission) ordinary voters were unwilling to play ball. It is not as if they trust anyone else. Anyone who thinks that the forlorn band of Yeltsin-era democrats will benefit from this is deluding themselves. Russians will take a long time to forget who created the system that turned government into a massive takeaway. But an electoral embarrassment could herald the breakup of United Russia as a party. It is quite possible for Putin to turn on his own creation. Although he was their presidential candidate, he himself never became a member. In the words of Marx (Groucho) he never joined a club that would have him as a member. The Duma should become an unexpectedly lively place.