There is a cheap and cynical point that could be made about the outcome of Russia's parliamentary elections. With official results showing that Vladimir Putin's United Russia lost more than 60 (of its 315) seats and turnout registering a 10-point decline, how much worse would the results have been for the ruling party if the process had been truly free and fair? The more significant point, though, is that even with what the OSCE called "severe problems with the counting process" and "an election administration lacking independence", the political picture in Russia suddenly looks more complicated, more interesting and more hopeful than for years.
United Russia has lost the two-thirds majority it enjoyed in the Duma, which allowed it to enact constitutional amendments by itself. It is not even certain that the party will keep its overall majority, and, although it remains by far the largest party, its sway has been greatly weakened. That could and should make for a more competitive and lively political scene.
The abstention rate – at almost 50 per cent – can be interpreted two ways. Negatively, it would suggest growing disenchantment with politics in general. Positively, however, it could be evidence of increased boldness on the part of Russian voters, with more refusing to be pressured into going to the polls. What is clear is that, even with the considerable resources at its disposal, the governing party failed to prevent, or disguise, the fall in its support.
Equally clear is the warning contained in these results for Mr Putin, as he prepares to campaign for a return to the presidency next year. His personal ratings have dropped in recent months, and – while there seems little doubt that he will prevail in March – victory could reflect less his continued appeal than the lack of any plausible opponent. As Sunday's elections showed, the opposition is split almost evenly between left (the Communists) and two shades of right. But aspiring candidates should take note. Russia needs a real opposition, and a time may be coming when its politics is no longer a one-man show.
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