Who was the opposition, again?

Photographer: Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russians Used to Love Putin. Now? Meh.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin's loyalists, the United Russia party, gained a massive, record majority in Sunday's parliamentary election -- but Russians have also shown that the high popularity ratings of United Russia and, by extension, Putin and his government are essentially fake: The turnout was lower than ever in the history of Russian federal elections.

According to preliminary results, United Russia has won 344 seats in the 450-strong State Duma, or lower house of parliament, a big improvement on the 238 it had gained at the previous election, in 2011. At the same time, it lost north of 5 million votes in absolute numbers. According to the Central Election Commission, the turnout reached 47.8 percent compared with 60.2 percent at the last election. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, which officially account for 11.8 percent of the total population, the turnout was lower still -- less than 30 percent.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

This is an important change. In 2011, widespread ballot-stuffing and fake absentee voting gave rise to major protests in Moscow: The capital's middle class had skin in the game and did not take kindly to being swindled. The protests failed because of these same Muscovites's aversion to the kind of violence that led to regime change in Ukraine in 2014. This year, there will be no rallies and marches against the falsifications, which were demonstrably prevalent in Sunday's election, too. Yet the low turnout is a strong message in itself. In Central Asian dictatorships people show up for "elections" for fear of being deemed disloyal, the way they did in Soviet times. In Turkmenistan, for example, a 91 percent turnout was registered at the 2013 parliamentary election. By staying away, a majority of Russians have shown they have neither love for nor fear of the Putin regime.

Even in Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, fewer people turned out than for the 2012 Ukrainian parliamentary election.

"The system is wilting and closing in on itself," political scientist Alexander Morozov wrote on Facebook. "Now, there's clear sociological evidence of this." 

Putin's opponents who called on Russians to go and vote for opposition parties are dismayed: The same four tame parties -- United Russia, the misnamed, opportunist Liberal Democratic Party, the Communists and vaguely center-left Fair Russia -- have won seats. Yabloko, the best of the anti-Putin crop, got less than 2 percent, not even enough to continue receiving government financing, let alone get into parliament. Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist, publisher and activist who had called on Putin opponents to vote and ensure some representation for liberals, raged on Facebook:

This Duma has been chosen with your lively participation. It turned out that you constitute a majority. You think you voted with your feet. But in fact you voted with your fat behinds, the ones on which you sat through yesterday.

"That's nothing but emotion," Morozov countered. Indeed, the anti-Putin parties didn't stand a chance for a multitude of reasons. They had splintered and squabbled, failing to agree on a common strategy. Some of their best candidates, such as anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and former tech entrepreneur Ilya Ponomaryov, were unable to run because of past politically motivated convictions or trumped-up charges against them. Potential donors were scared off. The regime now controls -- or has the ability to throttle -- every media outlet with significant reach. Besides, there was widespread ballot-stuffing -- often captured on video -- and the same statistical anomalies in favor of United Russia that were seen in previous elections. Physicist Sergei Shpilkin, who has done this kind of analysis for previous ballots, too, found that United Russia's results relative to turnout at specific polling stations do not follow the normal distribution, the way other parties' results do. According to Shpilkin, various shenanigans have added 14 percentage points to United Russia's result.

In short, the election was not free or fair -- and a majority of Russians, whether relatively happy with their life under Putin or strongly opposed to him, knew it wouldn't be. By staying away, they showed a silent reluctance to be fooled.

Putin has always prided himself on his majority support. His rule -- or at least his understanding of it -- has been based on love as much as fear. And Russians have mostly obliged by turning out in force for important votes. In 2006, the parliament canceled legitimacy thresholds for elections -- 20 percent of the Duma, 50 percent for the presidential ballots -- on the grounds that more than 50 percent of voters showed up every time. Now that it's no longer so and the new parliament's legitimacy looks questionable, the Kremlin is trying to put a positive spin on it. Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov laid down the official line:

Indeed, a higher turnout would have been welcome, but do not demean the significance of the turnout numbers we have now. They cannot be called low, you know that in the overwhelming majority of European countries turnouts are actually much lower and that reflects the reality, the proportion of the politically active population that traditionally takes part in the electoral process.

The Kremlin's troll army has been spreading this comparison on the social networks, though it is demonstrably inaccurate. In any major European country, a 48 percent turnout in a national election would be abnormally low. 

Russians See No Point in Voting
Voter turnout in the latest parliamentary election, percent
 
Source: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

The Putin regime would probably be OK with voter apathy, but there are reasons to suspect that it faces a kind of passive aggression. There is no end in sight to Russia's recession or the swollen law enforcement agencies' preying on business and the general populace. About a third of Russians believe the country is headed toward a dead end. A constitutional majority in the parliament gives Putin more power to tighten screws and eliminate remaining liberties, and he will probably use it; but he can hardly have peace of mind when a growing number of people dissociate themselves from his government, his goals and his farce of democracy. They only count on themselves, and they can hardly be expected to stand up for Putin if a strong rival emerges or if things get significantly worse economically.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net