Duma Elections: Political Landscape From Winter 2011 to Spring 2012 Presidential Election

Vladimir Putin, in his new costume, has been preparing himself to be the captain, once again, of the Russian transatlantic ship, sailing from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The Russian people will definitely benefit from this, and Russian democracy will flourish in its own way.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party has won more seats in the new State Duma than all other parties put together but has seen its majority decline sharply compared to the last elections. The results indicate that while United Russia has retained its majority in the State Duma (the lower house), it has lost its so-called constitutional majority – the two-thirds majority required to make changes to the constitution. Even though twice as many people voted for United Russia than the runners-up, the Communists, it was a steep decline from the 63 percent the party won in the last election four years ago and threatened to leave the party reliant on coalition partners to pass legislation in the Duma.

The results have shown that some Russian voters are beginning to grow tired of the Putin-Medvedev tandem and they are disappointed with the fact that there aren’t other reliable alternatives to the tandem. Many Russians felt that Mr. Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008, was the right man to get Russia on its feet after the break up of the economy and renewed the Russian people’s self-confıdence after the anarchic 1990s. He was credited with saving the homeland from chaos, restoring order, and then presiding over an unprecedented increase in living standards. But a lot of things have changed since then. Many Russians outside Moscow and St. Petersburg live in poverty and are growing impatient, while parts of the urban middle class that have enjoyed buying imported products in recent years now seek qualitative changes in other areas of life, such as politics. At the same time, they aren’t seeing a significant improvement in their lives. What’s more, it seems that while the government was trying to be strong at home in order to play an active role in world politics, it had difficulty explaining this to its own citizens.

Yet, even if the party does not gain 50% of the vote in Sunday’s election, it is still the leader in all regions of the Russian Federation. Considering the ongoing economic turmoil in the EU and that ruling parties have lost elections in the UK, Spain and Portugal, United Russia’s majority for another term could be seen as a success. The Communist Party, which is the strongest opposition party, was not able to exceed 20% although many Russian people would like to see the more equal distribution of the country’s wealth.

As the early results were released, Mr. Putin said, “United Russia has to bear some responsibility for the failures and the successes of the past few years. Despite all the difficulties and the responsibility on the party’s shoulders, our voters, our citizens have preserved its strength as the leading political party.”

These elections were the first elections since the amendments to the Constitution, according to which the presidential term was extended from four to six years and the term for State Duma deputies was extended to five years. Although this extension has given rise to some questions and doubts about the nature of Russian democracy, I believe that it also offers a chance to ensure a more stable government. Political stability is something that is needed most during times of economic hardship. It should not be forgotten that it was primarily political stability under Mr. Putin that saved the country from the chaotic economic turmoil of the late 1990s. In this respect, a government with a longer term is not an obstacle to democratization. In fact, it helps to consolidate democracy, as democracy is more susceptible to threats at times of instability. Mr. Putin has also emphasized these points in his statements. He said late Sunday that "we can ensure the stable development of the country with this result."

Though not rapidly, Russian democracy has been definitely improving since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political competition in Russia has become stronger. The participation of United Russia in pre-election TV debates for the first time in its history is evidence of this. Given the more complicated configuration of the Duma, United Russia perhaps will have to enter into coalitions and agreements with other parties on certain issues. In particular, passing the necessary amendments to carry out desired reforms will be more challenging as the party has lost its constitutional majority. As is known, the previous State Duma passed a record number of bills (over 1500 in total) before the end of its term. Yet, I expect that United Russia can easily find support from other parties represented in the Duma for these changes as long as they can maintain harmony with them. As Mr. Medvedev pointed out in his statement on Sunday: “This is what parliamentarianism and democracy are about.” “United Russia’s showing in the polls reflects the results of real democracy,” said Medvedev. He added that “the situation in the State Duma reflects the real alignment of political forces in the country.” Meanwhile, he phoned the leaders of the parties that won seats in the Duma. This act also shows that United Russia is ready to cooperate with them.

I believe that the current distribution of political forces in the State Duma will help strengthen democracy in Russia. Thanks to this distribution, both the government and the president will have to seek support from the opposition. This could bring an end to the criticisms that Russian democracy is authoritarian by nature. Contrary to some views, I don’t belive that Russia will have its own Orange Revolution or Arab Spring, because Russia has been a powerful state with a wealth of experience and political traditions that are an inseparable part of modern European political history.

In terms of foreign policy, Medvedev defends neoliberal principles, portrays himself as western-leaning, criticizes judicial power, and has given priority to combating corruption. He also calls for modernization of the economy and producing high technology, as the USSR had when it played the super power status role. Putin holds neo-realist views, according to which Russian youth must be supported in domestic politics, the community needs self-confidence, and Russia is one of the key players in global power politics. The differences in the views of Russia’s leaders emerged during NATO’s intervention in Libya. International issues like the so-called Arab Spring, the situation in Syria and Iran, and NATO’s plan to set up a radar base in Turkey will increase Russia’s role as an important player in world politics.

Mr. Putin's party may have won the Dec. 4th Duma elections, but he and his allies have been given a message. He needs to hold an honest presidential election and allow opposition candidates to register for the race. Mr. Putin has recently been named by Forbes magazine as the world’s second most-powerful person, behind only U.S. President Barack Obama. Putin has no serious rivals, except the growing national fatigue with the semi-authoritarian system he created. Even those who welcomed the leadership he provided to stabilize Russia in his first two terms as president are growing weary at the prospect of another two terms, when he is re-elected in March 2012.

To sum up, Mr. Putin, in his new costume, has been preparing himself to be the captain, once again, of the Russian transatlantic ship, sailing from the Pacific to the Atlantic. As the second captain, Medvedev, with the experience he gained as president, will help Mr. Putin chart the ship’s course. The Russian people will definitely benefit from this, and Russian democracy will flourish in its own way.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.