After 12 years with his authority virtually unchallenged, Vladimir Putin now appears to be facing an electorate that's showing signs of weariness with his rule.
Putin still seems to have a lock on another presidential term as the country prepares for that election in March. Nevertheless, his party — United Russia — received a clear rebuke in parliamentary elections held Sunday.
"The most important thing about this election is what it told us about the country's mood," says Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "It may have indicated that they really have had enough."
United Russia has been accused by both internal and international observers of stuffing the ballot box. While the final figures are still being tabulated, it looks like the party will get around 50 percent of the vote, or perhaps a shade less. That's a big comedown from its current two-thirds majority in the Duma.
Putin and his party will remain in control, but can expect to face a stronger opposition in the coming months and years.
Signs Of Discontent
Following his two terms as president during the last decade, Putin is currently serving as prime minister and has been the most powerful figure in the country since 2000. But there have been several indicators pointing to growing unhappiness with Putin.
Putin's speech announcing his presidential bid was not well-received. He noted that he and the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, had planned all along to switch jobs, to allow Putin to return to the presidency after stepping aside for one term.
In the parliament, or Duma, some deputies chose not to stand for a recent appearance by Putin. In another sign of disrespect, Putin was booed at an appearance last month at a mixed martial arts fight.
"There's been a huge amount of consternation in the Kremlin because this had never happened before," says Rajan Menon, who chairs the international relations department at Lehigh University.
Still The Favorite
Nevertheless, Menon, along with other analysts, expects that Putin will be elected to a six-year presidential term in March. If he wins that election, and the next presidential ballot in 2018, he could end up serving as the country's dominant leader for nearly a quarter-century, from 2000 to 2024.
Putin seems safe for now because the government has effective control of the most important media outlets and has not previously allowed opponents with any real stature to challenge him.
"They won't allow anybody with a snowball's chance in hell of getting on the ballot," says Peter Rutland, a government professor at Wesleyan University. "The presidential election is much easier to control, in that sense, than the parliamentary."
Both international and internal observers have accused Putin's party of manipulating the outcome of Sunday's election, suppressing opposition parties in the run-up to the voting, and stuffing ballots during and after the vote itself.
"This was the most brazenly manipulated election," says Aron, the AEI scholar. "The reason for this is precisely because it's a prelude to Putin's self-coronation in the election in March."
Why Turnout Was Down
For that reason, lower levels of turnout in this election may say as much about popular discontent than the outcome itself, suggests Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"They structured a process so that there is no real protest choice, so by definition the only protest available is not to vote," says Rojansky, who observed the voting in Russia.
United Russia will still control the Duma, holding more than twice as many seats as the next largest party. The Communists received just under 20 percent of the vote.
But United Russia will lose its supermajority, which has been big enough not only to pass laws but to amend the constitution without any help from other parties.
The opposition parties have mostly been quiescent in recent years, lacking the capacity to make a serious challenge to the Putin-Medvedev regime.
The question now becomes whether they will confront Putin more directly and more regularly — and whether the public will loudly demand a new approach.
Russia faces numerous challenges, including an aging and unhealthy population. Putin has done little to address corruption or legal abuses that have made foreign investors nervous. The country remains heavily dependent on oil and other commodities to keep its economy afloat.
The stability that Putin represented upon taking power has come to seem more like stagnation, says Menon, the Lehigh professor.
Not A Crisis — Yet
Aron, the AEI scholar, says it would be premature to predict that Russia will experience a mass protest movement of the kind seen in Egypt and elsewhere this year, or that any other real crisis is brewing for Putin's rule.
Still, calls for an end to Putin's rule may grow louder in the months to come.
"There's more anger this time than in the previous election, and I think we'll see more in March," says Aron, in reference to the presidential election. "Whether it will crystallize in some political [protest] effort, nobody knows, but at the very least this election made that outcome more likely."
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