Russia’s only independent election monitor called the vote the most flawed to date, an assessment echoed by opposition leaders, implying that United Russia’s actual haul would have been even less had the election been free and fair.
Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.
But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.
A chastening by voters probably will require Putin to pay closer attention to domestic politics and the time-consuming tasks of improving the economy and trying to tamp down corruption, perhaps making abrasive international encounters less appealing. Although Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev employed anti-U.S. sentiment during the last days of the campaign, with sharp rhetoric about NATO’s plans for a missile defense system in Europe and dark allusions to Western meddling in the elections, it produced little resonance among voters.
Voters began to grow disenchanted this year with a stagnating economy and unkept promises, even as they appeared too apathetic to do anything about it. But in mid-September, the Kremlin began to make missteps, ineptly removing billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as head of the Right Cause party, then announcing that Putin would switch places with Medvedev and run for president in March. Russians began to think that Putin, who had been president from 2000 to 2008, might be in power too long.
Throughout the summer, United Russia strategists had been telling party activists that they had to draw 60 percent of the vote, giving the bloc enough seats to be able to rewrite the constitution at will. As late as Oct. 3, the Vedomosti newspaper quoted Kremlin sources as saying that the party had set a goal of 65 percent. But confidence was waning; there was no more talk along those lines after that. Some analysts began to think that Medvedev, who headed the party list, was being set up to take the blame if the results fell short.