Mary Dejevsky: Putin won by a landslide. So what?

A strong swing against him would have been more suspicious than this vote of confidence
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In Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia, Vladimir Putin's party won by a landslide. The coerced turn-out was, not surprisingly, high. And now Putin is preparing to use this manipulated vote of confidence, as indeed he intended all along, to wangle a third term in power. What a travesty of the democratic process! What conclusive proof that Russia is rushing towards authoritarianism!

As the final results came in yesterday, this was pretty much the international consensus about Russia's elections, as indeed it was about the campaign. Yet in several key respects it is quite wrong. Yes, Putin's party won by a "landslide", in the sense that it substantially increased its share of the vote. While its majority is now sufficient to amend the constitution, however, this changes less than might be thought. So many groupings and individuals voted with United Russia in the last Duma, that the correlation of parliamentary forces remains quite similar to what it was.

Second, the turn-out for all the incentives and threats reported to have been applied to increasing it was not especially high. At just over 60 per cent, it was more than four years ago, but hardly at 99 per cent communist-era levels, nor yet at the 80 per cent level of recent European elections. If this is the best United Russia can do with all the Kremlin's resources at its disposal, what would the turn-out have been without that effort?

Let's hear it for the almost four in 10 Russian voters who defied all the pressure and stayed at home. Let's also ask whether a low turnout that discredited the whole process sub-50 per cent, say might have been what had worried the Kremlin all along.

Third, the prime purpose of these elections was to elect a new parliament, as required under the constitution. The timing was not within the Kremlin's gift. Of course, Putin, like any leader, has an interest in vindicating his time in office and, of course, the distribution of forces as revealed, however hazily, at these elections can be projected forward to suggest the likely outcome at the presidential election next March. But none of this necessarily means that the whole exercise was an attempt by Putin to find a quasi-legitimate way of hanging on to power.

Shorn of these misconceptions, the implications of Sunday's elections may be rather different from those drawn by an international consensus that habitually presupposes the worst. If the elections were, as they were bound to be, a referendum on Putin's eight years in power, the judgement was strongly positive.

But given Russia's strong economic indicators, Putin's undisputed personal popularity, and the sense of national dignity his presidency has helped to restore, the result was unlikely to be otherwise. A strong swing against Putin would have been more suspicious than the vote of confidence United Russia obtained. The elections may not have been as free, and certainly not as fair, as they should have been, but the result is not out of line with Russia's public mood.

By concentrating on the predictable size of United Russia's win, however, the headlines have tended to obscure one of the less predicted, and most disappointing aspects of these elections: the extent to which the post-Soviet political process has ossified. The parties represented in the new Duma, and their leaders, will be essentially those that have dominated the past decade of Russian politics.

Those who hoped and Putin was one of them that Russia would soon develop a multi-party system have been confounded. What is more, the early pro-Western reforming parties have withered away faster than the parties of a more conservative disposition. Russia's electorate remains more cautious and less enamoured of the Western example than is often understood outside the country.

Finally, the fact that United Russia has a majority sufficient to amend the constitution and keep Putin in office does not mean that it will do so. Putin has repeatedly stated that he will not serve another term. As president, he says, he has a duty to uphold the constitution, and this means complying with its term limits.

The parliamentary elections may have made his decision more difficult, but the underlying principle remains. If Putin is still president after March 2008 or even if he becomes, as he has half-suggested, prime minister Russia's flawed democracy will be compromised further and Putin will have missed his historic opportunity.

The magnitude of the change that lies ahead cannot be overestimated. Russia has never yet experienced an orderly, constitutional, transfer of power. After Sunday's elections, the candidate selected by United Russia at its coming congress is almost certain to become Russia's next president. The party's temptation will be to stick with Putin. For Russia's sake, Putin must resist.