The ruling party of Vladimir Putin won Russia’s parliamentary elections yesterday but with a sharply reduced majority in a blow for the strongman ahead of his planned return to the Kremlin next year.
The results mean his United Russia party has lost the constitutional majority of two-thirds in the State Duma required to pass any changes to the constitution, amid signs that Putin’s once invincible popularity is on the wane.
Sunday’s vote was overshadowed by accusations of dirty tricks by the authorities, and observers led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the elections were slanted in favour of United Russia and referred to violations including ballot stuffing.
“The election administration lacked independence, most media were partial and state authorities interfered unduly at different levels,” they said.
United Russia should obtain 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, an absolute majority but down sharply from the 315 seats it won in the last polls in 2007, election commission chief Vladimir Churov said.
The party managed to win only 49.54 percent of the vote, he said, a striking contrast from the 2007 polls staged when Putin’s popularity was at its peak and his party won more than 64 percent.
“Based on these results, we will be able to ensure the stable development of our country,” Putin said in a terse speech standing alongside President Dmitry Medvedev at his party’s campaign headquarters.
Its biggest opposition will be the Communist Party, with 92 seats, followed by the A Just Russia party with 64 seats and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party with 56. The results are based on a 96 percent vote count.
“United Russia won a majority in the State Duma only because of the particularities of Russian electoral law,” the Vedomosti newspaper wrote, acidly describing United Russia as “the party of the minority”.
The relatively poor showing came after Putin announced in September he planned to reclaim his old Kremlin job in March presidential polls, despite signs that Russians may be growing disillusioned with his 11-year rule.
Putin, who has dominated Russia since 2000, is serving a four-year stint as prime minister after handing over the Kremlin in 2008 to his protégé Medvedev, who is set to step aside and become prime minister in a job swop that the two men hope will determine Russia’s political future and stability for years to come.
“The authorities are losing trust – it’s a new situation for them,” said Sergei Lukashevsky, head of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Centre. “The regime’s ideology is exhausting itself.”
In a sign the result could prompt a shake-up within the elite, Moscow Echo radio cited senior United Russia sources as saying that party chairman Boris Gryzlov would resign his post as Duma Speaker.
The four years since the last parliamentary election have been marked by an outburst of criticism of the authorities on the internet as web penetration of Russia started finally to catch up with the rest of Europe.
Putin was recently subjected to unprecedented booing when he made an appearance at a martial arts fight, and opinion polls have shown an erosion in his once impregnable popularity.
“Who could have thought three days ago that even with a distorted result (United Russia) would poll less than 50 percent,” wrote top anti-corruption blogger and anti-Kremlin activist Alexei Navalny.
“I congratulate you all; we’ve done something great.”
In an apparent mass cyber attack, a string of news websites that do not toe the Kremlin line were down for election day on Sunday, including Moscow Echo, the Kommersant newspaper and The New Times magazine.