Vladimir Putin appears well on his way to reinventing himself as Russia's parliamentary leader when he leaves the Kremlin early next year, after his United Russia (UR) party won a massive two-thirds majority in Sunday's elections for the State Duma.
All eyes now turn to the presidential polls, slated for March 2, which in all likelihood will be won by Mr. Putin's nominee, who has yet to be announced.
UR and the three other parties that hurdled the 7 percent barrier to gain entry to the 450-seat Duma have until Dec. 23 to put forward their presidential candidates. But whoever sits next in the Kremlin will have to reckon with Putin, who made clear in the run-up to Sunday's elections that a good showing for UR would give him a "moral mandate" to maintain his personal influence over Russia's political direction.
"The vote affirmed the main idea: that Vladimir Putin is a national leader, that the people support his course, and this course will continue," said UR's leader, Boris Gryzlov, on Monday.
But some experts worry that Putin's efforts to shift his personal power base from the Kremlin to parliament could undermine Russia's fragile political institutions, which have no established division of authority.
"The big remaining question is how Putin will translate this electoral result into a position of continued power," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "There are no relevant institutions left in Russia. The only safeguard of stability is Putin himself, and there is a lot of ambiguity about how he plans to manage this transition," she says.
Most experts speculate that Putin will use his position as leader of UR to become prime minister, speaker of parliament, or chief of the Kremlin Security Council, a presidential advisory body. UR's two-thirds parliamentary majority will enable it to initiate constitutional amendments formalizing Putin's new role.
"The elections were played out as a referendum on public trust in Putin," says Dmitri Badovsky, a political scientist at Moscow State University. He says Putin's plans will probably become clear at UR's convention two weeks from now. "If Putin becomes the leader of UR, at least he will be able to block any decisions he doesn't like. The constitutional majority of UR will be very powerful," he says.
With almost all ballots counted Monday, UR had won 64 percent of the votes, which, when the votes of losing parties are folded in, will give it a more than two-thirds majority in the Duma. Two other parties that support the Kremlin line, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats and the Fair Russia party (also known as "Just Russia"), won about 8 percent each. Together the three pro-Kremlin parties will hold a commanding majority of 393 out of the Duma's 450 seats.
"I want to thank Russian citizens, all voters, for a high turnout," Putin said Monday. "Special thanks to those who voted for United Russia, whose election list I headed; this is an indication of trust," he added.
The only opposition force to surpass the 7 percent barrier was Russia's Communist Party, which won 11.6 percent – its smallest share of the vote since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "There wasn't much opposition or debate inside the Duma even before the elections, and things can be expected to stay that way," says Boris Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank.
Two liberal parties squeezed out of the Duma in 2003, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, trailed with about 1 percent each. Both say they will protest what they describe as the dirtiest election in post-Soviet history.
"We tried to use our first opportunity in four years to speak to people, but what can you do when the courts, the media, and all the financial resources are arrayed against you?" asks Yevgenia Dillendorf, Yabloko's press secretary. "These elections were not fair, open, honest, or free."
Other opposition parties, including the Communist Party, said they will file official complaints over an election campaign in which government resources were allegedly lavished on United Russia, and the state-run media gave the lion's share of attention to Putin and his party.
The joint European observer delegation agreed that the voting failed to meet international standards for free and fair elections. "The polls took place in an atmosphere which seriously limited political competition," the observers said in a statement. "There was not a level playing field." Russia's only group of independent election monitors, Golos, said its observers were excluded from polling stations in many regions, and one of its activists was arrested.
Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Central Elections Commission, told Russian state TV Monday that he noticed "no serious violations in the course of polling day."