The ruling United Russia has suffered a serious blow to its prestige and its authority with disappointing election results on December 4.
With its vote total hovering just under 50 percent, the pro-Kremlin party has surprisingly lost 15 percent of support
since the 2007 elections when it won more than 64 percent of the vote and took two-thirds of the seats in the State Duma.
The steep decline, analysts say, is a reflection of dramatic changes in Russia in recent years -- including increased economic uncertainty, a rise in independent civic activism, an increasingly restive electorate, and the growing importance of the Internet as a political tool -- which the ruling elite has been slow to perceive and react to.
Pavel Salin, an analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessments, believes that the traditional campaign United Russia ran -- in which it relied on the tried-and-true methods of media dominance, the support of regional elites, and the Kremlin's command of so-called administrative resources to pressure opponents -- exposed the ruling party as being out of step with changing times.
"United Russia made a serious strategic mistake in this campaign that led to all of its tactical errors," he says. "It approached the campaign in the same way it approached the election in 2007. But Russian society has seriously changed since then."
In the past, analysts say most of society was willing to trust Putin and his team and forego political rights as long as living standards continued to improve. But with a declining economy and an increasingly impatient electorate, that equation has changed decisively.
Salin adds that if adjustments are not made quickly, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin could be in for a similar embarrassment in March when he will run for a third term as president.
"Putin needs to rethink the political technology he is using," Salin says. "If he uses the same methods that United Russia used in this campaign, then I am afraid the result will not be as good as he is counting on. We may even see a second round, which for Putin would be a catastrophe."
Virtually nobody expects Putin to lose the March presidential election, of course. But his trip back to the Kremlin may not be as smooth as he had expected.
Indeed, most analysts point to the September 24 United Russia congress, when it was announced that Putin would return to the presidency and President Dmitry Medvedev would take his place as prime minister as the decisive moment when the discontent in much of society crystallized.
"I think that the new era began on September 24 when the 'constitutional putsch' took place and Putin returned to the Kremlin," says Lilya Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "In Siberia, in the Far East, and various regions, the results show a collapse of support for United Russia despite all the manipulation and falsification. This loss for United Russia illustrates the delegitimation of the authorities, which will have serious consequences for the March presidential elections. Essentially, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Putin's rule."
Fears Of Repression
Shevtsova fears that, with such a visible decline in support in society, Putin could turn to repressive measures. "Putin has already started reacting to this," she says. "The budget for 2012 has earmarked 33 percent of budgetary funds for defense and the power ministries. Clearly they are thinking about basing their regime and their system on force."
Meanwhile, some signs of the fallout from the December 4 vote are already emerging. For example, late on the evening of polling day, there were already rumors on the Internet and on Twitter that United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov would not be returning as speaker in the next Duma.
Not all observers, however, see the result as an unmitigated disaster for Putin and his team. Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Nikolai Petrov, also of the Carnegie Moscow Center, notes that Putin sensed the decline in United Russia's support and has prepared for it. And this is precisely why it was Medvedev -- and not Putin -- who led the party list.
"United Russia is not only able to come to terms with this -- it has to come to terms with this," Petrov says. "Putin in fact programmed much of this back at the September 24 congress. We saw how the national leader evaded the risk of being with party whose ratings were on a clear decline. Even the Kremlin's propagandists have long been saying that it's better to have a solid and not constitutional majority rather than to get a constitutional majority through some kind of subterfuge."
Moreover, Petrov says that having a simple majority in the next Duma -- rather than the two-thirds supermajority United Russia enjoyed in the outgoing one -- will make little difference in terms of governance.
The Kremlin still has ample tools to pressure parties into supporting its agenda. And despite his nationalist bluster, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Liberal Democrats (LDPR) have reliably and consistently supported the ruling elite over the years:
"I think in principle it will change very little because a simple majority is enough on the majority of questions," Petrov says. "If it needs the constitutional majority then it can attract deputies from LDPR and maybe some other parties."
Tom Balmforth reported from Moscow. Brian Whitmore reported and wrote from Prague. RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this article