Frustrated opponents of Russia's ruling party could take to the streets after parliamentary elections next month if they believe the results have been rigged, in what could become a nightmare scenario for Prime Minister – and likely third-term President – Vladimir Putin.
Sergei Mironov, who heads the Just Russia party, said yesterday that he was coordinating plans with other opposition parties to post their own election monitors at polling stations across the country, and if there was a big discrepancy between their exit polls and the official result, then "we will bring our people out on to the streets". Just Russia, which presents its platform as modelled on European-style social democracy, is vying for third place in the opinion polls with the far-right populist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Four years ago, as a new party, it won almost eight per cent of the vote, and currently has 38 MPs. The Communist Party came a poor second to United Russia, the party of Mr Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. Mr Mironov is banking on a significant improvement in the elections on 4 December, claiming that the party's own polls give Just Russia as much as 20 per cent or more.
He was speaking to members of the Valdai group of international Russia specialists in Moscow yesterday. Ever since Ukraine's Orange revolution in 2004, which followed a disputed election, the Kremlin has been apprehensive about people power making itself felt in Russia. But the challenges to entrenched rulers across the Arab world this year have made the country's leaders newly nervous, with debates raging in Russia's energetic blogosphere about how far the experience of Tunisia and Egypt, is applicable to Russia.
United Russia took 64 per cent of the vote at parliamentary elections four years ago, which gave the party a two-thirds majority in the Duma – sufficient to approve constitutional amendments. Its popularity held up reasonably well until this year, when it started to fall – in some places precipitously.
In local elections held earlier this year in 14 regions, many of its majorities were slashed, and its 58 per cent standing in recent national opinion polls is widely regarded as optimistic.
The possibility that its support could slump further – because of stagnating living standards and growing distrust of the political establishment generally – worries the Kremlin not just because a high number of losses would be seen as a humiliation, but because the parliamentary elections come only three months before the presidential election in March.
These are early days. The campaign went into top gear only this week, with the appearance of red, white and blue posters on all main streets, and nightly election 'debates' – by which is meant one-on-one slanging matches between an interviewer and party leaders on Channel 1 television in the late evening.
First up, on Monday, was the old warhorse, Mr Zhirinovsky – a relic of the last years of the Soviet Union – who worked himself up into a lather about low pay, social inequity, the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, and "job-stealing migrants", especially migrants from the former Soviet republics.
But the main problem facing the governing party is probably less Mr Zhirinovsky – or his party's rival for third place, Just Russia, but the pervasive cynicism among voters. Pollsters warn that even if both sets of coming elections – for the Duma and the presidency – were irreproachably free and fair, people may still believe they have been fixed, leaving the winners without a democratic mandate.