Notwithstanding claims of minor electoral fraud, Putin’s first-round victory was dominant and nearly unquestionable. Granted, the regime-backed candidate scored fewer votes than he had in both the 2008 and 2004 presidential elections. But considering the furor and demonstrations over the December 2011 parliamentary election, the comeback borders on somewhat remarkable. Remember Putin was still polling in the mid-40s by as late as January of this year. In the end, he received less than 50% of the vote in only one region (Moscow), and failed to improve on his United Russia party’s December 2011 vote total in again only one region (Kabardino-Balkaria, which dropped from 98% to 78%).
What explains the turnaround? First, enormous, potentially untenable, campaign promises showered the Russian electorate with money: targeted clientelist vote buying, new investments and expenditures, and salary and pension increases. Buoyed by a strong economy, Putin could easily make the case that the bonanza could and would continue. Given that his main opponents were a Communist and an oligarch (the slate was of course far from open), playing the economic card suited the campaign well. Moreover, token anti-American rhetoric probably split off a part of the nationalist movement which had previously started to move towards the opposition. The regime’s calling cards have always been stability, sovereignty, and prosperity; all enjoyed good play in the final two months of the campaign.
And where does this leave the Western-media friendly opposition? Unfortunately, not that healthy. Monday’s rally exemplified the overall newness of the movement: continued fragmentation, too many leaders, and an umbrella platform offering little more than rejection of the current regime (and its corresponding corruption). The movement’s overreliance on technology to mobilize (Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal) has opened it up to criticism that it is simply growing out of touch with the mass electorate that just returned Putin to office. One leader, Alexei Navalny, acknowledged it was possible that the movement “overestimated its own strength”. Right now the biggest danger is a return to the 2000s and the era of the non-systemic opposition (think Garry Kasparov), which grabbed headlines but quickly became an urban after-thought. In some sense, the opposition is missing the big picture by focusing mainly on electoral fraud in their rhetoric. By installing webcameras, Putin partially turned the table on one of the opposition’s main arguments, leaving them less and less ground to call the elections illegitimate based on day-of ballot stuffing. The election was pre-determined long before: when only certain candidates were allowed to run, massive sums of money promised to voters, and pressure placed early on vulnerable workers to turn out the vote. Without elections or other national occasions to coordinate and mobilize around in the coming year, its going to become much more difficult for the opposition display its strength.
The presidential results have clearly shown that less than free elections can reveal a ton of information about societal preferences, and it remains to be seen which direction the country will head. In this case, the opposition learned it has a long way to go to drum up real political change, whereas Putin may be emboldened if Saturday’s planned protest confirms that momentum has indeed shifted back to the regime. His victory speech on Sunday night, laden with references to provocateurs and traitors, in no way gave the impression that he intends to loosen his grip. What’s interesting however is that one can find numerous instances of potential partial liberalization in his non-economic campaign platform. Though the Kremlin still gets to decide who runs, regional governors will no longer be appointed, but elected. New bills are in the works to facilitate the registration of parties and curb the arduous process of collecting signatures to get on the ballot. Lame duck President Medvedev has even called on the prosecutor general to review the case of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a symbol of the state’s persecution of both business and dissent. Along with worries of spending overreach and macroeconomic volatility, Putin’s ability to reconstitute the ruling party machine of old may be hindered by self-imposed constraints. Which path he chooses may well depend on the opposition not losing steam.