There is no question that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will easily return to the Kremlin as president next year and that he will be fully in charge of Russia when he does. But the steady erosion of his regime’s grip over the Russian public was on full display Sunday, when Russian voters elected a new Duma. In the previous legislative elections in 2007, Putin’s United Russia party polled almost two-thirds of the vote and gained enough seats to change the constitution as well. This time around, even with the help of widespread electoral fraud, the party failed to reach 50 percent of the popular vote. And though it will still hold a majority of seats in the Duma -- 238 out of 450 -- with a performance that would be the envy of most Western political parties, the collapse in support for the ruling party has aroused concern in the Kremlin.
The actual consequences for the governance of Russia are less clear, because in practice, the actual makeup of the Duma is not terribly important. Three other parties cleared the threshold for representation -- the Communist Party (KPRF) with 19 percent of the vote and 92 seats, the neo-fascist and inaccurately named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) with 11 percent and 56 seats, and Fair Russia with 13 percent and 64 seats. The latter two are considered to be a stalking horse for and a creation of the Kremlin, respectively. The LDPR’s leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, initially rose to prominence -- and briefly gave the world a scare -- by winning the 1993 Duma elections, but he is now widely considered to be a “shalun,” or “clown.” While the party operates with a degree of independence, the presence of Andrei Lugovoy, a suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, in its ranks is indicative of how closely linked it is with the ruling establishment. Meanwhile, Fair Russia was created by the Kremlin to serve as a social-democratic alternative to United Russia, with the goal of siphoning votes from independent left-wing parties. It nevertheless remains entirely supportive of Putin.
As for the KPRF, it has survived as a catch-all opposition party due to its still considerable national organization -- and despite the unattractiveness of its platform and leadership. (Gennady Zyuganov has led the party to repeated defeats in legislative and presidential elections since 1993.) The increase in its vote share is more a reflection of rising popular discontent with the status quo and the desire to express support for an alternative than actual support for its political offering.