Putin party to lose support in Russia polls
The party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win legislative polls Sunday, but with a reduced majority, as signs grow of an emerging discontent over its domination of Russian politics.
United Russia, which critics compare to the Communist Party in the one-party Soviet Union, should easily win the most seats in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, in the face of a relatively weak opposition for the third election in a row.
But with Russia's economic outlook uncertain and the Internet increasingly used as a means to criticise the authorities, the picture for United Russia is far less rosy than in the last elections in 2007.
Then, it won 315 seats in the 450-deputy Duma, giving it more than the two-thirds "constitutional majority" that is required if the Russians constitution needs to be changed.
But surveys from the independent Levada Centre and state-controlled VTsIOM pollsters respectively predict that United Russia will win between 253 and 262 seats in the Duma, losing its constitutional majority although retaining a simple majority.
"The change has been substantial, compared with what happened four years ago," said the deputy director of the Levada Centre Alexei Grazhdankin.
Both Levada Centre and VTsIOM expect United Russia will win just over half the votes, well down on its rating of 64.3 percent from 2007 when the Russian economy was riding high on the back of record oil prices.
Russia has since lost the stellar growth rates it enjoyed before its oil-dependent economy was bruised by the 2008 economic crisis. Although its short term budget position is strong, it remains vulnerable to any new shock.
But the last four years have also seen an explosion of the use of the Internet to criticise excesses by the elite, a massive development in a country where newspapers and television generally toe the Kremlin line.
Meanwhile according to think tank the Centre for Strategic Analysis, the demographic of Russian society is "completely changing" due to the emergence of a growing urban middle class more prepared to criticise the authorities.
It said that the changes pose a major challenge for the elite, who believe they have fixed Russia's medium term political future with the announcement that Putin will return as president in polls in March 2012.
Analysts said the elections could be a fiasco for United Russia in certain regions where the protest mood is strongest.
These could include Saint Petersburg and the Siberian region of Irkutsk -- which share a tradition of counter-thinking going back decades -- as well as far-flung regions like the western exclave of Kaliningrad and the region around the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok whose voters feel betrayed by the federal authorities in distant Moscow.
"In a number of regions, the population is unsatisfied and this dissatisfaction with local problems and corruption is transferred to the federal authorities, who appoint the local ones," said Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
The more discomforting outlook for United Russia has raised concerns it will use a full battery of dirty tricks to ensure success. And some say it has already been using them.
One of the main anti-Kremlin liberal parties, the grouping Parnas based around ex-minister Boris Nemtsov and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, cannot take part after being denied registration by the authorities.
Posters in Moscow appearing to simply encourage people to vote later turned out to have exactly the same design as United Russia's election publicity, in an apparent attempt to link the sheer act of voting with supporting the party.
"Are these elections? Is this democracy?" seethed the usually pliant lawmaker Gennady Gudkov in an incendiary speech to the dour State Duma which has been one of the YouTube hits of the campaign.
But the new Duma, which under constitutional changes will sit for five years instead of four, should pose few problems for United Russia despite the increased strength of opposition parties.
The most visible liberal party Yabloko is given no chance of breaking through the minimum seven-percent threshold required to claim seats.
This will leave just the Communist Party, the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democrats and the populist A Just Russia as the other parties represented in the Duma. All in the past have been able to back the Kremlin when the need arises.
Yet the gradual changes in Russian popular opinion could discomfort Putin, who after his expected takeover of the presidency from Dmitry Medvedev in next year's elections could stay in the Kremlin until 2024.
"The public mood has changed," said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "Putin and United Russia are not respected as they were."
© 2011 AFP