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Leading article: An exercise in mistrusting the people

Early results in yesterday's election for the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, had something for almost everyone inside the spectrum of opinion tolerated by the Kremlin and almost nothing for anyone else.

United Russia, the party nominally headed by President Putin, emerged with a commanding majority though mercifully nothing like the 90 per cent won by the ruling party in Soviet times. Exit polls put the party's share of the vote at 60 per cent, with the Communists, the far-right party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and perhaps also Just Russia, a new Kremlin puppet-party, reaching the 7 per cent bar for representation. The reforming parties, Yabloko and SPS, languished in very low single digits, worse even than four years ago.

Taken at face value, the result means that Russia's new Duma will look very like the old, with the addition of Just Russia, a more nationalist-tinged, slightly more conservative version of United Russia. One more party, however, would mean fewer seats, and so less complete domination, for United Russia. The Duma has also tipped marginally further away from pro-Western reformism. Only the Communists increased their vote, though only by a small number. The reformists have even more thinking to do about their failure to join forces than they did four years ago.

But this election cannot be taken at face value, or not only at face value. For a start, there was more at stake here than the distribution of seats in the Duma. United Russia's identification with Mr Putin made the election into a referendum on his almost eight years in power. He obtained the seal of approval he had vicariously sought but no more than that. Whether he will use United Russia's Duma majority, as he theoretically could, to manoeuvre for a third term remains a live question, and one that leaves uncertainty, not just about Russia's future, but about the durability of its institutions.

The other main reason why the election cannot be taken at face value was the domination of all communications channels by the Kremlin and the dubious efforts made to get out the United Russia vote. The absence of OSCE observers (though not all foreign monitors) cast a further shadow over the proceedings. Legal challenges were being threatened last night by embittered opposition figures.

The sad truth is that United Russia could have won this election on its record alone, without bending or breaking rules. As too often in Russian history, the leaders feared the people. With stability and prosperity far more entrenched than four years ago, the people could have been trusted to vote with their wallets, even if their heart was not completely convinced.