RUSSIA VOTES: United Russia crawls over the line

By bne IntelliNews December 5, 2011

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Russia's governing United Russia party has lost its constitutional majority in the State Duma, and may have lost its absolute majority in the December 4 vote, according to media reports, although it is still expected to occupy over 50% of the parliamentary seats.

With 95% of the votes counted, the party backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev saw its share of the vote hovering just under the 50% mark, down from a whopping 66% in 2007. However, with the votes for parties that fail to cross the 7% threshold for entering the Duma to now be redistributed, United Russia will likely hold a slim absolute majority, say analysts.

Despite numerous allegations of falsification, the result is broadly in line with pre-election opinion polls and exit polls, which predicted a sharp slide for United Russia. Left, centre-left and nationalist parties reaped the benefits of disillusionment with the leading party, meaning that should United Russia fail to cross the 50% threshold, the result is likely to weigh on the already stagnating reform process. In that case, the result will test to what extent the so-called 'loyal opposition' of largely anti-Western parties is dedicated to supporting the government's line.

Despite overwhelming media backing and strong use of administrative levers for United Russia in the form of influence over state employees and regional election commissions, it was the red-brown opposition that saw the biggest gains. Russia's largely unreconstructed Communist Party took 19.13%; the centre left A Just Russia 13.18%; and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party 11.66%. The pro-reform liberal Yabloko, led by veteran Grigorii Yavlinsky, took only 3.25%, and thus failed to overcome the 7% cut-off threshold to enter the Duma.

While media focus is on the sharp fall in the United Russia vote compared to 2007, the pro-Putin party's tally still remains considerably above the 37.5% it took in 2003, which was considered a highly successful result at the time. The make up of the parliament still saw the government face few problems in pushing legislation through the chamber. That said, policy eight years ago was very different to the reform programme that has been implicitly promised following the presidential vote in March.

In a short speech at United Russia campaign headquarters, Putin called the results "optimal" and "reflecting the real situation in the country." "Based on these results, we will be able to ensure the stable development of our country," Putin added, according to RIA Novosti.

Medvedev said "a 50-percent result testifies to a real democracy," adding that the government will "have to take into account the more complex configuration of the Duma and for some issues we will have to join coalition bloc agreements." He blamed the drop in the party's vote on the aftermath of the 2009 economic crisis that saw Russia's GDP contract by 7% after years of stellar growth.

There has been media speculation that the disappointing result for the ruling party could cost Medvedev his promised future job as prime minister, with the current president due to swap jobs with Putin in March. Putin reaffirmed that Medvedev as his candidate for prime minister shortly before the vote, but speculation has been rife that former finance minister Alexei Kudrin could be set to return to head the government, after Medvedev ousted him in the autumn. The liberal Kudrin would, however, be unlikely to find many friends in the enlarged left-leaning opposition ranks.

Perhaps most intriguing of the results amongst them is the 14% of the vote taken by the left-leaning A Just Russia, which Putin associate and former speaker of the upper house Sergei Mironov established in the run up to the 2003 Duma elections. Originally intended as a spoiler party to take votes off the Communists, in recent times it has become (or has appeared to become) a bitter rival to United Russia.

The election results thus bring some added plurality into the political system, and indicate growing dissatisfaction with the slowing economy and stagnating political life. However, in the absence of any pro-market parties in the new parliament, the results are unlikely to stimulate the already weakening reform programme, and instead are likely to accelerate spiraling social expenditure and weakening budget discipline.

In the face of this, some analysts are stretching to suggest that the result may represent a larger liberal push than can be seen at first glance. "Parties receiving less than the 7% barrier receive no seats in the parliament, supporting the Communists as a prominent second party was the most obvious way to vote against United Russia in the absence of a legal means to express this view," Natalia Orlova at Alfa Bank writes in a research note. "We do not see this necessarily as nostalgia for Soviet times, but rather as an indication of protest voting."

"It remains to be seen whether the votes for opposition parties were simply made in protest against United Russia, rather than in support of alternative policies," commented Peter Westin at Aton. "The Russian government faces a huge task in diversifying the economy. This challenge becomes considerably more complicated when the government must choose between short-term actions that are popular with an increasingly frustrated electorate and difficult longer-term structural reforms."

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