Vladimir Putin's United Russia party appears to have eked out a 50 percent win in Sunday's elections for the State Duma, which puts it on track to dominate Russia's lower house of parliament for the next five years.
But United Russia (UR), which held a commanding two-thirds majority in the outgoing Duma, has been severely chastened by legions of voters who turned against it despite its near total domination of the media, vast access to official resources, and alleged campaigns of harassment that kept even permitted opposition parties from competing fully. It also faces an unprecedented storm of complaints from oppositionists around the country, especially widespread accusations of vote-rigging in the frenzied hours of Sunday night aimed at bringing UR's totals up to the crucial 50 percent mark.
Analysts say the ruling party's loss of prestige and credibility in this election could change the political atmosphere in Russia and cast a dark shadow over Mr. Putin's coming run for president on the UR ticket, in polls slated for March.
"For Putin these results are a loud and clear alarm bell," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. "He is a clever man, and I suppose he understands that UR's popular base is fading away just when he needs it to launch his presidential campaign in a few weeks. He has also been put on notice that discontent is running deeply in Russian society."
The preliminary report (pdf) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which fielded 160 observers -- the biggest Western delegation -- found that Sunday's vote counting "was characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation, including several serious indications of ballot box stuffing."
One key example of that allegedly took place here in Bashkortistan, an ethnic republic in the Urals some 1,000 miles east of Moscow, where opposition leaders are up in arms over what they claim were "massive manipulations" of vote tallies in the republic's central election headquarters in the early hours of Monday morning.
Rifgat Gordanov, leader of the Bashkortistan branch of the Communist Party, claims that his party's observer tallies, exit polls, and the first wave of returns Sunday night all agreed that the Communists had won about 21 percent of the votes in the republic, while United Russia had about 46 percent.
"Then, suddenly, on Monday morning we were informed that our final vote was just 15.6 percent, and United Russia had leapt to a total of 70.6 percent," Mr. Gordanov says. "This is a complete fraud. Our observers were everywhere, they saw what was happening, but in many places they were denied copies of the protocols [the polling station document that certifies the raw vote count]. There were unbelievable violations of the rules."
But Andrei Nazarov, chief of UR's Bashkortistan election headquarters, insists that everything was above board.
"Turnout in Bashkortistan was 79 percent, with 70 percent of voters supporting United Russia, that's confirmed," he says. "That's one of the best results in Russia, and it's evidence that our party has been serving the people well, while the other parties have done little.... There is no evidence that violations took place. These are just empty claims by a few people."
In at least one polling station, No. 1736 in the economically-stricken town of Davlekanovo, a journalist watched the entire vote-counting process and noted that the results in that place -- just one of hundreds of polling stations in Bashkortistan -- tracked closely with what the Communist Party is claiming. Vote counters looked visibly surprised as the pile of Communist votes rose to about 25 percent of the total, while UR got just over 50 percent. In that small case at least, the journalist confirmed that the final results did get accurately reported to the territorial electoral commission.
"In ethnic republics like Bashkortistan, the majority of falsifications tend to take place at the higher levels," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "They can be very honest in the polling stations, where people take their civic duties seriously, but it's harder to control what happens when those results get reported to the higher level.... But in these elections we have seen a shift in the public mood. People are less willing to be taken for granted, and treated like cogs in a big machine. There have been a lot of protests this time."
Russia's main independent election monitoring group, Golos, has logged over 5,300 serious violations in the election campaign so far, including the illegal barring of the group's observers from many polling stations. Perhaps not coincidentally, Golos' official website has been down since Sunday, along with the website of the liberal Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvi, in what beleaguered staffers describe as a massive cyber attack.
Under Russian electoral law, votes cast for parties that fail to make the 7 percent cut required to enter the Duma, as well as spoiled ballots, are divided up among the winners in a formula that's weighted to benefit the strongest party. That puts UR in line to win about 240 seats in the next Duma, a comfortable majority in the 450-seat house, experts say.
The Communist Party officially won 19.2 percent, which will give it about 90 seats. The left-wing A Just Russia party, with 13.2 percent will get 64 seats and the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which garnered 11.7 percent, will have 56 seats.
"United Russia may have a majority, but the situation will be different from that of the outgoing Duma," says Mr. Petrov. "Opposition parties have received a huge boost of public trust, and in order to justify this trust they will not behave obediently in the Duma as they have in the past. Indeed, UR deputies cannot be expected to be loyal soldiers (of the Kremlin) anymore either, because they know they need to think of their constituents and take other interests into account if they want to survive politically. It's going to be a sharply changed atmosphere."
Mr. Strokan says the message to Putin may be even more dire than just the threat of a more combative parliament.
"What we've seen here is a failure of the system of managed democracy. The myth of United Russia is finished," he says. "And if you look at the fate of other such systems around the world, you see what it can lead to. In Egypt, parties loyal to President Hosni Mubarak won 80 percent victories routinely and then, suddenly, one day everyone was in the streets. All that apparent strength turns out to mean nothing when the crunch comes. Putin must realize that the popular mood, which was docile for years, can just explode one day. And if I were him I'd be very worried right now."