Back on October 11, the ruling United Russia so dominated regional elections, and the falsification was so flagrant, that the whole affair sparked a walk-out from the State Duma by the Communists, Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia.
On March 14, United Russia still dominated local elections, but not by nearly as wide a margin as they had in regional polls in the autumn. All three housebroken "opposition" parties were allowed to win enough to keep them satisfied (the Communists even won the Irkutsk mayor's race), but there is little doubt who remains in charge.
As I have blogged here, clan battles in the Kremlin, in the regions, and inside the United Russia hierarchy have damaged the party's standing in the elite and with the public and at the polls. The party's aura of invincibility is fading.
Writing in today's issue of "The Moscow Times," the Carnegie Center's Nikolai Petrov calls the situation "strangely reminiscent of the historic elections of 1989 and 1990 — the first multiparty elections in the Soviet Union — when people voted against candidates from the Communist Party as protest votes."
But as political analyst Oksana Goncharenko tells "Vremya novostei," it was also clear that the Kremlin changed its tactics in the March 14 vote. The administrative methods the authorities routinely deploy to secure the vote they want, she said, were "used with considerably less gusto in this election, and the opposition itself recognizes this."
Also speaking to "Vremya novostei," Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies makes a similar point:
Petrov argues that this change of tactics represents a small -- but clear -- victory for Medvedev:
Of course, Medvedev has made no moves to allow real opposition parties who might seriously challenge the status quo -- as opposed to the housebroken and obedient variety -- to be part of the process:
This disenfranchisement could come back to haunt the Kremlin if the economy continues to slide and the political situation destabilizes (but that is a subject for another post).
So which model -- October 11 or March 14 -- will the Kremlin attempt to deploy in Russia's next big vote, elections to the State Duma in December 2011?
According to Makarkin, that will depend on what function the Duma elections will serve for the ruling elite. If they are marketed as a referendum on the current authorities, or as a sort of "primary" for 2012 presidential election, then the temptation to go overboard with administrative methods will be great indeed. In this scenario, the October 11 model will dominate.
If they are treated as a "common parliamentary election," Makarkin says we can expect an outcome similar to the March 14 election. "Everything depends on what political decision is made," he said. "The political decision in its turn depends on who is on top of United Russia's ticket. And on what the election is supposed to accomplish, of course."
It also depends upon who is expected to lead the country after the 2011-12 election cycle.
In an online interview with Gazeta.ru, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said the Medvedev-Putin ruling tandem would remain in place after the 2012 presidential elections. "There can't be any contradictions in the Medvedev-Putin tandem by default," Gryzlov said. "That is why they will work in this tandem after 2012."
Does this mean that Medvedev will remain president and Putin premier? Gryzlov, of course, didn't say. This rather important detail is, in all likelihood, still being ironed out.
-- Brian Whitmore