How Putin's party lost votes and still won

Yurii Colombo writes from Russia on the outcome of elections for the country's parliament--and what they mean in a country enduring another year of recession.

Vladimir PutinVladimir Putin

THE DAY after elections to Russia's parliament, known as the Duma, was like any other in Moscow.

The usual endless lines of cars stretched toward the downtown--sooner or later, construction of a new highway should reduce congestion. News of the vote was interspersed with pop songs on the radio. Billboards advertised the beaches of Israel, now that Egypt and Turkey have become more dangerous, but the middle class can no longer afford such vacations.

Moscow's unchanging routines were symbolic of an election characterized by very low turnout and the continued dominance of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party--even though Putin faces increasing discontent among a population that is worried, disillusioned and uncertain, especially about the state of the economy.

2016 is the second year of a recession caused mainly by a sharp fall in the price of oil worldwide. Gross domestic product dropped by 3.7 percent in 2015 and is predicted to fall by another 1 percent this year. The percentage of the working-age population that has jobs dropped by 9.3 percent, and inflation is running at around 7 percent annually.

Class struggle is back on the agenda. According to the Center for Social and Labor Rights, the number of workers' protests has grown by 22 percent since 2014, mainly the in South Siberia and Irkusk region.

The government of Putin and Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev didn't take any action to shield the population from the effects of a fall in the value of the ruble, and living standards have quickly dropped to the level of 2008 and before.

But this discontent didn't gain expression in the election. Turnout fell from 60.2 percent in 2011 to 47.8 percent. What's more, the national average understates the rate of abstention from region to region, especially in the cities.

The republics and regions of the Russian federation where state governors tightly control political life and where manipulation is massive had the highest participation rates: 83.3 percent in Chechnya, 80.5 percent in Karacajevo-Cerkesskaja, 71.8 percent in Ingushetia. In these areas, United Russia won 70 to 80 percent of the vote.

The situation was radically in the cities. Turnout in Moscow was 28.7 percent and 25.6 percent in St. Petersburg. In the provinces of Siberia, where the economic crisis is deeper, the numbers are similar: 29.3 percent in Novosibirsk, 29.7 percent in Perm, 31.6 percent in Krasnoyarsk.

There is no better symbol of the disconnect between the political elite and general public opinion.

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THE SAME four parties as after the 2011 election will be represented in Duma, but each of the other parties lost seats to United Russia.

Putin's ruling party will have an outright majority in parliament after winning 54.2 percent of the vote, up from 44.5 percent in 2011. Its representatives will hold 343 of the 450 seats in the Duma.

The Communist Party of Gennady Zyuganov won 13.3 percent of the vote, down from 19.2 percent in 2011; the nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky won 13.1 percent, down from 15.3 percent; and A Just Russia got 6.2 percent, down from 8.1 percent.

The first impression is of an overwhelming victory for Putin's party. But in overall vote count, United Russia came up several million short and was only saved by the low turnout--it won 32.4 million votes in 2011 voters, but only 28.4 million this time around.

That vote total would have been even worse if not for the fact that supporters of the Agrarian Party of Russia, which got 1.6 million votes in 2011, were absorbed by United Russia in this election--and Putin's party received an 1.8 million votes in Crimea, the former territory of Ukraine annexed by Russia in 2014.

Putin remains the most popular political leader in Russia, but mostly because of the weakness of the other parties than United Russia's strength. The opposition parties saw an even bigger decline in their overall vote--the Communist Party's total went from 12.6 million in 2011 to 7 million, for example.

None of the parties represented in the Duma are principled opponents of Putin and United Russia--the Russian parliamentary world is very much a closed aristocracy.

The Communist Party and A Just Russia declare themselves to be left parties, but this is far from the truth. The Communist Party has old-fashioned Stalinist politics and is notorious for its anti-Semitism, homophobia and rabid nationalism. A Just Russia, though officially a member of the socialist democratic Socialist International, has been a loyal supporter of Putin's politics for a long time, and backed all of the governments expansionist and imperialist policies of recent years.

The two biggest liberal parties, Yabloko and the People's Freedom Party, have a tiny level of popular support, confined to the big cities in Europe.

All attempts to develop a real left-wing party to represent workers have failed to this point--there are only very small Trotskyists and anarchists groups with some support among youth in the major cities.

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AS IN previous votes, this election was marked by fraud and large-scale irregularities. Independent journalists recorded video showing fraudulent actions at many polling stations. In big cities such as Moscow, some stations even lacked ballots.

Some Russian bloggers estimate that without the fraud, Putin's party would have only reached about 40 percent of the vote. Adding in the low turnout, that means United Russia only won the vote of about 15 percent of the people who were eligible to vote.

Meanwhile, government repression has only increased, with more and more sources of dissent simply squelched. More and more, "Tsar Vladimir" has resorted to playing the anti-Western, nationalist card to shore up any support--as is made clear by the government's intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, as well its adventure in Syria.

After years of great economic growth, Putin's star has ceased to shine. But for now, no force is able to turn it off or replace it.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.