September 25, 2016

Mission accomplished — that was the message Vladimir Putin had for the organisers of the recent Duma elections when final results were announced last Friday.

According to the president, the polls were a triumph for United Russia — the party whose raison d’être is to support Mr Putin — and for democracy at the same time. “Our country and our political system will be stable to the extent to which we can ensure the legitimacy of the electoral process,” Mr Putin said. “The results have been recognised as objective and legitimate by the overwhelming majority of participants and observers and, most importantly, by Russian society.”

However, not all is what it seems in Russian democracy. While UR gained 76 per cent of seats in the new lower house of parliament, making things easier than ever for the Kremlin, Mr Putin has reason to worry about the longer-term future of his rule.

Here is why. Despite the ruling party’s apparent victory, its support is eroding. Ever larger parts of the population are switching off politics, leaving Mr Putin reliant on a shrinking core of diehard backers.

Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst who heads an alliance of non-governmental election observers, believes that only 15 per cent of the electorate voted for UR, an estimate based on the assumption of widespread electoral fraud.

Although UR’s share of the vote jumped to 54 per cent from 49 per cent five years ago, it was on the back of a record-low turnout. In absolute numbers, the ruling party’s vote tally dropped by 4m to 28.4m since the last election.

What is more, over one-third of the ruling party’s votes appear to have been cast in the dark corners of the Russian electoral system: UR achieved its strongest results in more authoritarian regions that recorded drastically higher turnout figures but had far fewer observers and video surveillance than in other parts of the country.

Part of this “cluster of special electoral regimes”, as Mr Oreshkin calls it, is the North Caucasus with more than 4m voters. Six of its republics reported turnout above 80 per cent. Five of them recorded UR’s share of the vote as above 70 per cent, with two above 80 per cent. In Chechnya UR won 96 per cent at a turnout of 95 per cent — a claim independent observers dismiss as outright fiction.

Other areas with extremely high turnout, very strong results for UR or both include the southern Siberian regions of Kemerovo and Tuva, Tatarstan, Mordovia, Bashkortostan and the Saratov region, home of Vyacheslav Volodin, Mr Putin’s deputy chief of staff and future Duma speaker.

The rest of the country looks different: in most of central and north-west Russia, Siberia and the Far East — including Moscow, St Petersburg and most other large cities — more than 60 per cent of voters stayed home, and the ruling party’s share of the vote rarely exceeded 40 per cent.

Overall, independent observers calculate that Mr Oreshkin’s ‘special cluster’ accounted for 10 to 12m of UR’s 28m votes. According to Russian physicist Sergei Shpilkin, who examines election results with mathematical and statistical tools, voting patterns in this group diverge from those typically observed in fraud-free elections worldwide.


of the electorate voted for United Russia, according to one political analyst

Spikes in turnout here appear to have translated into votes exclusively for the ruling party. Mr Shpilkin argues that this could only have been achieved through ballot stuffing, busing-in of UR supporters or outright fabrication of polling numbers.

Such accusations seem hard to believe when Russia’s election regulator is supposedly cracking down on electoral fraud: Ella Pamfilova, chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, declared results in nine polling districts invalid because of irregularities.

But only three of those are in regions with sky-high turnouts and UR results and none of them is in Chechnya.

“Pamfilova did a great job — but only in those parts of the country where she was allowed to,” says a western diplomat in Moscow.

While this allows the president to claim victory, it may achieve the opposite of his own declared goals. “We need to show citizens that their sentiment, their preferences are reflected in the formation of the representative and then also the executive organs of power,” he said.

The growing part of the population that stayed away from the polls has already demonstrated that it does not buy Mr Putin’s show.

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