Not So United Russia

Writing in The Moscow Times, Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center suggests that United Russia wasn’t as successful in this week’s regional elections as commonly believed.

“United Russia leaders tout the fact that the party won in all nine regional parliaments, even under difficult economic conditions. Their opponents point out that not only did United Russia fare worse in every region than it did during the 2007 State Duma elections, but it also lost badly wherever the slightest hint of competition existed.

“The party’s losses in the eyes of the public are probably of less significance than its loss of status among the regional political elites. United Russia’s greatest setbacks occurred not only in major cities with their large — and less-controllable — voter populations, but also among the Caucasus republics. United Russia on average lost about 10 percent of its usual voter base, but in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia the losses stood at 25 percent. That signals the end of United Russia’s monopoly among the administrative elite in the regions.

The picture turns out to be more interesting and varied on themunicipal level. That is where candidates’ personal influence plays aneven greater role, and the state’s rigid control of the politicalmachine is less apparent. United Russia claimed victories inNovosibirsk, Chelyabinsk, Chita, Birobidzhan and Blagoveshchensk, wherethe incumbent mayors were re-elected by wide margins. In cities where arunoff election is required — Smolensk, Murmansk,Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Tomsk — United Russia’s incumbent mayorseither already lost in the first round on Sunday or stand a good chanceof losing once the opposition voters consolidate their support for asingle candidate in the second round. In Tver, the Communist Partywalked way with a clear victory, bringing in twice the number of votesas United Russia in the city’s legislature. United Russia failed toachieve 40 percent representation in the city legislatures in Bryansk,Ulan-Ude and Tolyatti. In Tolyatti, second place went to the oppositionmovement December that includes representation from Yabloko and RightCause.

Not only the participating parties but the entireelectoral system passed the test of whether it could function undercrisis conditions. Although the country is still very much strugglingwith overcoming the economic crisis, it has entered a new phase ofpolitical activity.

United Russia’s weakness, which wasclearly demonstrated during Sunday’s elections, will only increase withtime. Here the hard numbers from the election results are of lessimportance than the growing political rivalry within the party,disagreements between the party’s regional and federal leadership andthe conflicts between United Russia and local political elites thatsurfaced even during the last elections two years ago. United Russia isgradually transforming from a monolithic bureaucracy under strictKremlin control into something resembling a true political party. Injust a short time, United Russia might lose its standing as thedominant party.