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What’s Souring Russian Voters’ Views of the Ruling Party?

A parliamentary election campaign poster of the United Russia ruling party depicts Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow. Photo by Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images.

The failure of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s once-dominant political party to eke out a majority in Russian parliamentary elections over the weekend shows a growing disillusionment with the country’s problems with the economy and corruption, some analysts say.

With most vote tallies in, the ruling United Russia party received nearly 50 percent of the vote and an estimated 238 seats — a 77-seat loss — in the 450-member Duma legislative body, according to Russia’s Central Election Commission. It was the largest electoral setback since Putin came to power in 1999 following Boris Yeltsin’s resignation. International election monitors cast the 50 percent figure in doubt by reporting widespread instances of fraud, including ballot box-stuffing.

Despite the losses, Putin took a positive tone late Sunday night, saying, “We can ensure the stable development of the country with this result,” according to the Associated Press.

But the loss of seats shows a feeling among many Russians that their needs are not being addressed by the ruling party, said Angela Stent, a professor and director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University who served as a national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia from 2004 to 2006.

Russians are feeling the effects of the global economic crisis, though perhaps not as acutely as Europe and the United States, Stent explained. “I think people had expectations of their living standards going up and at the moment, that’s not happening.” Also through better communication including Internet use, “people are more and more aware of corruption at a local level,” despite Medvedev’s attempts to counteract it.

Opponents have been calling United Russia the party of “crooks and thieves” and that perception has stuck, she added.

Some people cast their votes in protest for the Communist Party, which ran on an anti-corruption platform and has been pushing the state to play a bigger role in redistributing income, said Stent.

The Communist Party came in second with 19 percent of the vote, followed by Just Russia with 13 percent and the Liberal Democrats with nearly 12 percent, the Central Election Commission said, according to the New York Times.

Fred Weir, GlobalPost’s reporter in Russia, said heavy-handed tactics leading up to Sunday’s election might have turned off some voters as well.

Russia’s independent election monitoring group, Golos, reported it had received more than 1,500 complaints of campaign violations. Its director was held by customs agents at a Moscow airport on Saturday and released after she allowed them to search her computer.

Dozens of activists were detained for participating in unauthorized rallies on the day of the vote. Thousands more protested the results and allegations of fraud on Monday in Moscow.

Opposition activist display photos of detained fellow activists outside the Kremlin in Moscow during parliamentary elections on Sunday. Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images.

Weir said he’s been reporting in Bashkortistan, an ethnic republic about 1,000 miles east of Moscow, where he described the atmosphere on Sunday as “quite tense.”

“It’s the first time I have ever seen observers for opposition parties challenge things like the running tally of voters coming into polling stations” to keep track of potential ballot box-stuffing.

Weir said he encountered people “who not only seemed aware of their rights, but also were willing to stand up and make a scene when they thought they were being violated.” In many other places, he added, electoral officials were acting very professionally.

The vote itself was well-organized, but “the quality of the process deteriorated considerably during the count, which was characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulations, including serious indications of ballot box stuffing,” reported the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. (Read the full report from international election monitors.)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Bonn, Germany, where she was participating in an international development conference on Afghanistan, that she had “serious concerns” about the way the elections were conducted.

“Russian voters deserve a full investigation of all credible reports of electoral fraud and manipulation and we hope in particular that then Russian authorities will take action,” she said.

Although Putin at this point doesn’t have a credible challenger in presidential elections coming up in March, Sunday’s parliamentary elections show he still has an uphill struggle, said Stent. “I think he is going to have to make a credible case to the population that when he comes back as president these issues will be addressed and that their lives will improve.”

Related Resources:

Angela Stent of Georgetown University and Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discuss what a swap in roles between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2012 would mean for the United States:

The BBC and Reuters have roundups of voters’ opinions from different parts of Russia.

Photo of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.

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