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Winning without Winning?

Person in Sweater Inserting Ballot into Ballot BoxRegional Elections in Russia Have Raised Questions about United Russia's Future Dominance in Russian Politics, but Analysts Say Not to Expect Any Major Surprises in the 2011 Duma Elections

Sunday's elections for the local legislatures in 12 Russian districts resulted in wins for United Russia across the board, as expected. Yet the ruling party's decreasing margin of victory has kicked some life into bloggers and opposition politicians, who claim that United Russia's dominance in the Russian political sphere has been shattered by the election results. In their opinion, rising discontent with United Russia's governance, evidenced by paltry pluralities in many districts despite the vast popularity of leading figures like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, shows that the country is looking for alternatives to United Russia.

The elections took place last Sunday, where voters in 12 districts elected representatives to regional legislatures. United Russia won a plurality of votes in all the districts in question, and earned close to 70 percent of the seats, or mandates, in the regional legislatures where the elections took place. Yet while certain districts accorded United Russia its usual strong majorities of 60 or 70 percent, the party earned under 50 percent of the votes in seven of the 13 districts, and in several, such as the Kirov and Tver Regions, received below 40 percent of the vote. The prime minister noted that under the effects of the crisis, the results of the elections were still quite positive for United Russia, in his opinion. "It shows that people, despite being tired, positively value the actions of United Russia," said Putin.

However, opposition candidates have made strong statements about United Russia's declining prospects in the wake of the elections, pointing to the election results as the first indicator of voters' growing displeasure with the party. "If we look at the numbers, then we see that in comparison to the Duma elections of 2007, United Russia is in free-fall, like a heavy elevator with its cable cut," said the Deputy Chairman of the Communist Party Ivan Melnikov, reported Kommersant. Gennady Gudkov, an outspoken Duma deputy in the Just Russia party, wrote in his blog that the election results may give far-reaching opportunities for the opposition in Russia. "Right now we're beginning to witness a drop in the ratings of the party in power, although in the elections they employed all their administrative resources and more. So I value the results as positive. It gives us the chance, without catastrophe, civil war and revolution, to change power."

Yet votes against United Russia do not necessarily entail a boon of support for the opposition, say experts, and such votes are more a referendum on the ruling party, which has indeed lost the confidence of some voters in the past year. "The elections and some polls leading up to it exhibit the exhaustion of voters with United Russia," said Alexander Morozov, director of the Center for Media Research at the Institute of Cultural History and an influential blogger on politics. "You can't call this a protest vote, one in favor of the opposition. This is simply connected to the fact that United Russia has already spent quite a bit of time as the dominant party, and this year it's fallen into a zone of very sharp criticism."

Russia's opposition parties have long been in the political wilderness, and although greater discontent with United Russia would grant opportunities for other parties to pick up votes, it is unclear how the politically disgruntled would make their voices heard ­ whether by voting for one of three opposition parties, or simply abandoning the vote to apathy. "Even if there was a potential for protest, it would be quite difficult for the three parliamentary opposition parties to rely on this potential," said Morozov.

With respect to the upcoming December elections, analysts also noted that voters in this Sunday's regional elections focused particularly on the leadership of the local governors, rather than the national leadership of United Russia. "Basically, elections in Russia are a test for the governor. The population can vote against United Russia, they can vote for another party or they can just spoil the ballot and vote invalid, or they can just not come to the elections. So if there are not enough votes for United Russia, usually the governor resigns," said Dmitry Babich, a political analyst for RIA Novosti, also noting that with United Russia failing to win a majority vote in 7 of 12 regional districts, their governors are likely to bear the responsibility for lackluster support and may lose their positions. This may change in the national elections this December, where votes for United Russia will be more closely associated with popular figures, including Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Furthermore, local elections stress the social ties among candidates and communities ­ if United Russia has suffered a significant blow in the local elections, then this is one that may bear little relation to the upcoming December elections. "Irrespective of the party banner under which candidates run, it depends more on the person. Whether a local business figure, well-known local personality or bureaucrat is running on the ballot [in these local elections], because it is for the person himself that people are voting to a meaningful extent," said Morozov.

As the United Russia party apparatus kicks into gear for the December elections, another factor that will strongly affect the upcoming elections is, of course, whether prime minister Putin will decide to head United Russia in December. His star power would significantly boost the results for United Russia across the board.

Considering the lack of a strong opposition and their virtual domination of the public sphere, United Russia should be expected to maintain a strong majority in the State Duma, said Babich. "In Russia, unless something dramatic happens, there is little chance that United Russia will lose control over the Parliament or legislature, unless there is a major conflict within the party itself."

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