It is very important not to lose sight of the overall political picture of what is happening behind the discussion of the State Duma election fraud. The falsifications were indeed impressive and have brought us back to the year 2011, after which we had the «Crimean consensus» for a while, and the authorities had no need for any extraordinary or shocking ballot-box stuffing. After the annexation of Crimea, ratings rose, and Putin and United Russia enjoyed substantial organic support; if anything was lacking it was readily obtained in the «electoral sultanates» and through the traditional mobilization of state workers.
Based on the results of the September 17-19 elections, the main conclusion is that the ruling party no longer has organic supporters. To preserve its dominance in the political field, the Kremlin went to great lengths to follow in Lukashenko's footsteps – by completely falsifying the election results without regard to the actual vote. This had never been the case in the past – the government still had support ratings, and in order to retain control, the results had to be «adjusted». Now, they're being completely falsified – according to the calculations of the electoral mathematician Sergei Shpilkin, United Russia received 14 million additional votes in this election, without which it would have received only 31-33% of the vote. This would mean fewer than 200 seats in the State Duma, which would demote the ruling party from undivided dominance in the parliament for the past 18 years to little more than a large faction.
What does all this mean politically? For starters, we have received the first official confirmation that the Crimean euphoria is over, and the authorities are forced to take a defensive stance with regard to their positions amid the loss of support from the majority of the population, retreating to approximately the place they were in after the Bolotnaya Square and Prospekt Sakharova rallies, long prior to the seizure of Crimea. Earlier, in such assessments one had to rely on opinion polls, but now we have clearly seen that without forcing masses of government workers to vote, rewriting protocols, and employing such «innovative» methods as «electronic voting» the ruling party is bound to lose its majority.
The Crimean euphoria is over, and the authorities are forced to take a defensive stance with regard to their positions
There was no confrontation between the «pro-government supporters» and the «opposition supporters» during the elections: while the opposition supporters were numerous and visible, on the opposite side of the political spectrum we saw lines of unhappy budget workers at the ballot boxes, and tricks played by election commission officers to stuff ballot boxes; we saw Alexey Venediktov justifying «electronic voting» which flipped the Moscow election results (it accounted for almost 4% of the national vote, deciding the fate of dozens of State Duma seats), and even some athletic looking «titushki» (hired thugs) outside the polling stations prepared to fight against independent observers. In this respect, the situation is much worse for Putin than in 2011, when a significant number of organic supporters of the government still existed - now there are none.
Furthermore, the authorities sent a signal to the public in advance that they understood their support was no longer available, and that they would resist by other means, i.e. by unprecedented repressions. What started in Russia in January - Navalny's imprisonment, detentions and door-to-door raids on tens of thousands of people, a myriad of criminal cases with many people and organizations being declared «extremists,» «undesirables» and «foreign agents», mass threats to state workers, threatening e-mails sent to Navalny supporters, and so on - was a clear signal: we know we have lost popular support, we know people will be outraged by rigged elections, and we categorically warn you against participating in protests.
In fact, Putin and his Security Council decided not to wait for mass protests against election fraud like in Belarus in 2020, and immediately sent a signal to the public: don't even think about protesting or we'll lock you up. Many people had similar explanations for the large-scale crackdown in the recent months, but the voting on September 17-19 crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's - the Kremlin needed the clampdown because it understood the catastrophic drop in the approval ratings, was preparing for large-scale falsifications in advance, and was sending the public a preemptive signal – make no mistake, we are ready for extreme measures to retain power.
The Kremlin was preparing for large-scale falsifications in advance and sent a preemptive signal to the public – don't even think of protesting
Kremlin opponents had high hopes for this election - primarily related to Alexei Navalny's Smart Voting. On the one hand, those hopes were dashed - United Russia kept its majority in the State Duma and no noticeable independent faction was created. But on the other hand, things look different: the government itself recognized Smart Voting as a major threat (just ask Google, Apple, and Telegram), and the days of voting only confirmed it. No other national campaign was as successful in mobilizing protest voters since the «vote against United Russia for any other party» campaign promoted by Navalny in 2011. Although the Smart Voting candidates lost in most districts, they really were trying their best to win – this time the people behind Smart Voting made virtually no mistakes in determining the strongest opponents of United Russia. Often the issue was decided by a few thousand or even a few hundred votes; Smart Voting won the districts in a clean sweep in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the ruling party was only saved by electronic votes and by the rewriting of protocols.
The «protest party» has become quite organized in these elections, and it is a bad sign for the Kremlin. If such a system for mobilizing protest voters has been able to show results in the face of total repression and the imprisonment of Navalny, it will be hard to contain in the future. Yes, the repression and falsifications let United Russia win, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, akin to Napoleon's taking of Moscow (he formally took control of the city and even established his administration there, but only temporarily, as it turned out).
What Putin will do with the election results is unclear. He has absolutely nothing to celebrate. It was because of this understanding that the authorities delayed the announcement of the results and when they did announce them, they did it without much fanfare (even Medvedev did not appear). With all the manipulation and falsifications, United Russia failed to get even 50% in the voting by party lists - a very important psychological threshold, since the elections in Russia are actually a referendum of confidence in the government (in any referendum a result of less than 50% means «no»). Putin personally interceded for United Russia - he announced the party's top five at the congress in June, tied the payment of 10 thousand rubles to pensioners to getting the United Russia majority in parliament. But none of it helped the party in power to pass the 50% threshold. The party looks extremely weak, given its claim to maintain total domination in Russian politics. United Russia’s result of less than 50% is an expression of the public attitude towards Putin personally, who this time around was actively involved in the party's campaign.
Any election in Russia is a referendum of confidence in the government, and a result of less than 50% in a referendum means «no»
All this creates a dramatically different setting for moving towards 2024 from the one Putin would like to see. He would like to show class, to demonstrate to everyone that he can single-handedly subdue the opposition and achieve any result he wants. But it didn't work out. Less than 50% of the votes by United Russia's party lists, state workers lined up at the polling stations on Friday, the controversial «electronic voting» - all this will only strengthen the understanding that the Russian authorities have finally lost the support and trust of the people and can be kept in power only through methods used by Lukashenko. No longer a leader with no alternative and a high approval rating, Putin is approaching 2024 looking more like a lame duck – albeit armed with the FSB, the Russian Guard, Roskomnadzor (the State telecommunications and media watchdog, which has taken the lead in closing down opposition publications and websites), and a new pile of repressive laws.
Yes, there's no doubt he's still powerful. But so is a wave of popular discontent. We saw it firsthand this past weekend, and believe me, the powers that be clearly noted that signal. No matter what skeptics may say on the Internet, those in high places have a very clear understanding - the people no longer like them, and they can only hold on to power by force. They are clearly not going to surrender, but the people do not wish to buckle under either. The lack of post-election protests is not something to be embarrassed about: people do not want to plunge headlong into police brutality, arrests, and criminal persecution without being guaranteed that protests can change the situation. But the energy of protest did not go anywhere - and the brutal falsifications rather added to its power.
The country is being led along a very dangerous path. Putin is stubborn, he does not want to allow a more competitive political system, nor does he want to surrender power or change course, although the public has been explicitly signaling him its unequivocal desire for change. He promises to respond forcefully to anyone who disagrees. But the number of dissenters is large and growing. As has often been the case in our history, such persistence by rulers in the face of demands for change often leads to an explosion. At this rate, it's not far off.
One should not read the absence of mass protests as society's consent – people simply act cautiously because of the risk of reprisals. However, at the first misfire, people will prove their worth. We need to wait patiently and work to expand the ranks of protesters. The moment of truth will come for society, but not for the authorities, and last weekend we saw that society had already made its choice. History has started a countdown for Putin - to paraphrase Lincoln, you can intimidate some of the people all the time, or all the people some of the time, but you cannot keep the whole country in fear and obedience all the time unless the country wants it.
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