Pro-Kremlin candidates swept the field Sunday in thousands of local elections, which opposition leaders allege were marred by fraud. However, most analysts say they are probably an accurate reflection of the country's mood.
More than 4,800 Russian localities held polls Sunday, including five regions that saw direct gubernatorial elections for the first time since President Vladimir Putin suspended direct voting for governors eight years ago. With most votes counted on Monday, it was clear that the pro-Kremlin United Russia party had nabbed all five gubernatorial spots, and won handy majorities in most regional and city legislatures that were up for grabs.
"This was more of a defeat for the opposition than a victory for United Russia," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "The opposition needs to learn a lot of lessons, and the authorities would make a big mistake if they become complacent."
Mr. Putin seized on the results as an affirmation of the rightness of his course. "In my view these election results are not unexpected," he said in a meeting with the head of the Central Election Commission on Monday. "I think it is just one more step that confirms the intentions of voters to support the existing institutions of power, and the way Russian state politics are developing."
The independent election watchdog Golos, which has come under ferocious fire from the authorities for its role in exposing massive electoral fraud in last December's Duma elections, posted more than 1,000 violations of polling station rules this year, including alleged cases of repeat voting, ballot box stuffing, buying absentee ballots, and voter roll irregularities.
But Andrei Buzin, an expert with Golos, says that these elections were in some ways more participatory than previous ones in the Putin era, and that the incidence of electoral violations was probably no higher than in the past.
"I think we are registering more violations this time because we have a much better qualified corps of observers that we are fielding, and they are highly motivated to watch for anything out of place," Mr. Buzin says. "This is a big improvement."
As before, he says, the fact that United Russia candidates enjoyed all sorts of direct and indirect state support probably played a key role.
"All information about the elections reached most people via the state media, and in most cases there were no alternative sources," he says.
Other commentators pointed to voter exhaustion, and warned that many were turning away from the electoral process altogether. Turnout was at a low ebb, even for Russian regional elections, with less than 25 percent of voters casting ballots, on average, around the country. In the far-eastern Primorsky Krai, less than 8 percent of voters bothered to show up.
"The low turnout is a very important indicator that no one really won these elections," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute for the Study of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow.
"People clearly have little interest in supporting the government, but they're not enthused by the opposition either. Actually, a lot of recent opinion polls show a curious paradox unfolding: Support for the authorities is falling, but support for the opposition is falling faster. That's why we see this odd result, that seems to show a big victory for United Russia, but standing upon a very narrow base of the population," he adds.
Points of light
There appeared to be only two relative points of light for the "white ribbon" opposition, which sprang into existence after allegations of massive fraud in last December's Duma elections – and which has continued to be able to stage major shows of strength in the streets of Moscow every few months.
And environmental campaigner Yevgenia Chirikova, who led a long struggle to stop a toll road through an old-growth forest in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, came in second in her bid to become Khimki mayor – suggesting that the opposition can fight their way into the system.
Ms. Chirikova, who was one of the few opposition candidates to have a good ground game and well-organized supporters, says that her campaign was hobbled at every turn by dirty tricks and massive official support given to her United Russia opponent, acting mayor Oleg Shakhov. At an election night press conference, Chirkova said her observers had documented large-scale fraud and, in one case, she was physically prevented from documenting violations and had her phone confiscated by polling station security.
"I’m going to tell the world just how dirty these elections are," Chirikova told journalists. "We are seeing a massive falsification of the vote."
But experts say, though fraud may well have been widespread, the central lesson of Sunday's election is that the opposition needs to broaden its base and develop a more mature program if it hopes to enthuse larger numbers of Russian voters.
"In local elections, voters are looking for people who can solve their problems, and not necessarily for political fire-breathers," says Mr. Mukhin. "The fact is that most United Russia candidates are experienced professional managers, and in many cases they talked up their credentials, while distinctly downplaying their party association...."
"The opposition needs to recruit more capable managers, and learn to use more normal, practical political slogans. To shout "Putin must go!" may get some traction in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where people are far more politically intense, but it's just not going to work with the majority of Russians out there in the provinces," he says.
"It was no great victory for United Russia. The system worked for them just as it was designed to. But it was a telling defeat for the opposition – and one they should learn from," he adds.