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Why the Kremlin's big win in Russian elections may not be a victory (+video)

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United Russia came away Sunday with a landslide victory. But voter apathy, even in more anti-establishment regions like Sverdlovsk, may be the biggest factor in the pro-Putin party's win.

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    People vote in polling station 1177, in the industrial town of Verkhnyaya Pyshma, near Yekaterinburg, Russia, on Sunday.
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The ruling United Russia (UR) party may have won a crushing victory in Sunday's parliamentary elections, one that will undoubtedly be a huge boost for President Vladimir Putin. But the most common remark about the now-concluded election campaign is that it was "very boring."

It's an odd moment for Russia.

Voters have been buffeted by two years of economic recession and still-escalating political tensions with the West. Presidential elections are less than two years away. While Mr. Putin has yet to commit to running for another six-year term, alternatives to his nearly two-decade-long rule now appear more remote than ever.

But voter apathy is widespread, as is a deeply conservative mood, leading to a low turnout. Even here, in the gritty industrial and heavily militarized Urals region of Sverdlovsk – which has a tradition of anti-government protest – more than 60 percent of voters didn't bother casting ballots at all. And while those in the region who did vote swung somewhat more anti-establishment than most, the lack of engagement, both here and in Russia, could signal a more seismic political reaction from voters down the road, experts say.

"It's not the voters who supported UR, but the majority of Russians who didn't vote at all that we should be worrying about," says Andrei Koryakovtsev, an independent political expert in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk's capital. "If they don't believe in the electoral system to register their views, then the chances of people taking it into the streets instead will grow."

This was the first election in over a decade where half the Duma's seats were decided by first-past-the-post constituency races, similar to the US House of Representatives. Experts say that, in principle, this innovation could expand democratic potential in Russia by increasing the chances for local favorites to beat the big party machines. This time around, however, UR candidates backed by local bosses and big business appear to have scooped up more than 200 of those 225 territorial seats – boosting the party to a two-thirds "constitutional" majority in the 450-seat State Duma.

A case in point was Alexander Burkov, candidate of the Kremlin-sanctioned left-wing opposition party, Fair Russia, who tried to challenge UR's near-total control of the military-industrial city of Nizhni Tagil. He wound up with 21 percent of the votes, while Alexei Balyberdin, Mr. Burkov's UR-machine-backed but relatively unknown opponent, coasted to a 46 percent victory.

"Under the circumstances, coming in second is an honorable result," Burkov says. "My opponent had the president, the mayor, and all the resources of local big factories behind him. Where I was allowed to hold meetings, and distribute my materials, I did quite well."

An antigovernment tradition

Indeed, Sverdlovsk did vote somewhat differently from Russia as a whole.

United Russia won 54 percent of the "party list" votes overall, but got barely 40 percent here.

Parties of the "systemic opposition" – who do not criticize the Kremlin – did better, generally. The tame nationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky won almost 17 percent here, compared to 13 percent nationwide. Fair Russia, which got just 6 percent in the general tally, just 1 percent over the barrier for entering the Duma, got more than twice that in Sverdlovsk. The Communist Party took under 12 percent, or a couple of points less than their national average, likely due to the region being a major center of Gulag prison camps and secret police repression under Stalin.

The liberal Yabloko party, which does oppose Vladimir Putin on issues like the annexation of Crimea, got nearly twice its countrywide support in Yekaterinburg, though still tiny at just under 3 percent.

The relative success of non-UR candidates in Sverdlovsk is not surprising, given the region's history. Despite its dependence on big state-connected factories, there is a tradition of antigovernment protest here that perhaps owes something to its Stalin-era legacy. Yekaterinburg was also the site where Bolsheviks murdered the last czar and his family in 1918. This city is far ahead of most other Russian centers in publicly acknowledging, documenting, and raising prominent memorials to its many 20th century victims.

"Yekaterinburg is always a bit more radical than the rest of the country. This is the home town of Boris Yeltsin, who smashed communism, and lots of other politically active people," says Dmitry Kolezev, regional deputy editor of Znak.ru, an alternative-news internet newspaper. The elected mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, is a pro-business liberal who beat a UR candidate to get the job in 2013.

Relatively fair?

While one local commentator remarked that "it wouldn't be a Russian election without violations and fraud," most indications are that the mass falsifications which brought hundreds of thousands of Russians into the streets of major cities after the last Duma polls in 2011, including here in Yekaterinburg, have not occurred this time around.

Russia's only independent grassroots election monitor, Golos, noted in a statement that these elections were cleaner than the previous ones, but that they still fell far short of free and fair, given the inherently unequal playing field non-UR candidates have to face. The OSCE, which fielded a team of observers, also criticized the lack of "distinct political alternatives" among the 14 parties on the ballot.

"Here in Sverdlovsk region we did not record any massive falsifications," says Alexander Grezev, Urals coordinator for Golos. He says the biggest problem was the frequent breakdown of the new voting machines introduced in several Yekaterinburg polling stations, "which created a very nervous environment among election officials and observers," and greatly complicated the vote-counting.

The biggest red flag is the extremely low voter turnout across the country in Sunday's election. Just under half of voters came out, far below the 60 percent who took part in the last Duma polls. In Moscow, always a bellwether, fewer than 30 percent cast ballots. Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg, hit an all-time low in voter turnout of just 16 percent.

Experts say that suggests Russia's heavily stage-managed political system has failed to engage public trust, and that could spell trouble for the presidential elections that are just over the horizon.

"Everybody lost this election," says Mr. Koryakovtsev, "even UR."

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