- United Russia gets record seats for constitutional majority
- Observers, opposition complain of violations, unfair contest
President Vladimir Putin secured a crushing victory in parliamentary elections that gave the United Russia party its biggest-ever majority -- enough to change the constitution at will -- as international observers criticized political restrictions on the campaign.
Despite Russia’s longest recession in two decades, the pro-Kremlin party will get 343 out of 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, after winning 54 percent of the vote, the Central Election Commission said with 99 percent of votes counted. Three other loyalist parties, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, the Communists and Fair Russia, were the only ones to pass the 5 percent barrier to enter the Duma.
Public support for United Russia was in part “a reaction of our citizens to attempts at external pressure on Russia” through sanctions and “efforts to destabilize the situation in our country from within,” Putin told ministers on Monday. Russia doesn’t need “shock therapy” and should pursue “balanced” economic and social reforms, he said.
The result cements Putin’s grip on power after the 2011 parliamentary vote and the 2012 presidential contest were clouded by an unprecedented wave of protests sparked by voting-fraud allegations. With opposition voters staying away in droves in major cities, amid a turnout of only around a third in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Russian leader may face a bigger challenge when he faces re-election in 18 months’ time.
“This is the biggest risk, the myth of invincibility,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political adviser to Putin, who warned of disaffected urban voters. “The authorities have lost any counter-balance.”
While the vote was carried out with “improved transparency and trust,” Russia’s “democratic commitments continue to be challenged,” Ilkka Kanerva, special co-ordinator for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters in Moscow on Monday. The campaign was “negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society,” he said.
With the Duma elections turned into a confirmation of Putin’s rule, the Kremlin may be preparing to tighten the screws further. The Kommersant newspaper reported Monday that a new Ministry of State Security may be created, combining the functions of existing agencies, in an echo of the Soviet-era KGB.
After United Russia last won a so-called constitutional majority with 315 seats in 2007 elections, parliament extended the presidential term to six years from four. Since the protests five years ago, Putin has weathered an economic downturn and a currency crisis sparked by the collapse in oil prices. He benefited from a surge of patriotism that allowed him to squash dissent after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, an act that prompted the sanctions from the U.S. and its allies and chilled relations.
“The party got a very good result -- it won,” Putin said Sunday at a joint appearance with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, United Russia’s chairman, at its headquarters in Moscow after polling ended. “The situation isn’t easy and people want stability in society, in the political system.”
Putin, 63, who’s been in power for 17 years, is widely expected to seek another term in March 2018. The authorities reacted to the 2011 and 2012 protests with new laws to suppress the opposition movement and jailed activists. While backing for Putin reached record highs after the annexation of Crimea, United Russia’s popularity slumped in opinion polls to about 40 percent from 60 percent 18 months ago amid the steepest decline in incomes in two decades.
The party, which previously had 238 deputies, will get 105 extra seats in the next Duma, according to the election commission, including by winning 203 of 225 contests in individual constituencies. Half of the Duma’s 450 deputies will come from these single-mandate contests for the first time since 2003, a change seen as favoring United Russia because of campaign support from the state apparatus and its dominant voter base.
The opposition parties Yabloko and Parnas failed to garner a single seat. The election “happened just like usual,” said Yabloko’s deputy leader, Nikolai Rybakov.
The Kremlin sought to prevent fraud allegations marring this contest and spurring a new wave of opposition to Putin. A long-time human-rights advocate, Ella Pamfilova, was appointed to head the election commission earlier this year, and about 500 OSCE observers were invited to watch the vote.
The campaign was “low key” and simplified party registration “has yet to result in distinct political alternatives,” Kanerva said. Procedural irregularities occurred at vote counts and “local authorities did not always treat the contestants equally,” he said.
The state machinery favored the ruling party during the campaign and on voting day, according to Golos, an independent monitoring group. It received reports of ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, including one in which a bus full of workers was seen at seven Moscow polling stations. Some state employees reported pressure to vote for United Russia.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, here’s how the major parties stand:
- United Russia: 54.2%
- Communist Party: 13.4%
- Liberal Democratic Party: 13.2%
- Fair Russia: 6.2%
Turnout at 48 percent was the lowest for a parliamentary vote since the Soviet Union’s collapse. In 2011, 60 percent of the electorate voted. Putin conceded the level of participation had fallen from previous years, but said it was still “high.” His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the turnout was favorable in comparison with European levels.
The low turnout showed “voters’ attitude to the ruling party,” said Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Liberal Democratic Party’s leader.
The elections were the most transparent on record, with the commission receiving far fewer reports of voting irregularities than in previous elections, Pamfilova said on state television. The scale of United Russia’s victory “came as a surprise to us in many ways,” she said.
An exit poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM polling company gave United Russia around 45 percent of the vote, while the final result was ten percentage points higher. It won 96 percent in Chechnya in Russia’s North Caucasus and 89 percent in neighboring Dagestan.
Golos, which said it had to cut its presence in half compared with 2011 to 4,000 observers because of tough new limits on monitoring, said while the authorities didn’t need to resort to widespread fraud this time, the results were still far from free and fair.
“Administrative resources provided this slightly strange result even if the central electoral commission wanted to improve things,” said Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the organization. “The system has simply been working like this for too long.”