Russians from the Bering Strait to the Baltic voted in regional elections yesterday, the last big test for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ruling party before December parliamentary polls and a presidential vote next March.
With critics at home and abroad accusing Putin of rolling back democracy and muzzling opponents, however, some analysts said the Kremlin wants a cleaner vote that would bolster the legitimacy of his “tandem” rule with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
United Russia, which Putin uses as both a source and a instrument of power, is expected to maintain majorities in the 12 regional legislatures at stake despite sagging support.
The Kremlin will use the elections to gauge the mood ahead of the parliamentary polls and the March presidential vote, in which Putin has suggested he will return to the Kremlin or endorse incumbent Dmitry Medvedev for a new term.
About 20 million Russians were eligible to vote in the regional legislative polls, by-elections, and mayoral and municipal council contests in the country of 142 million people.
Inflation is the chief worry of voters and the government is struggling to balance the need to check it with the desire to speed up sluggish growth and the temptation to spend generously in a campaign year as oil revenues flow in.
Prices rose 3.3 percent in the first nine weeks of this year, severely testing the state’s full-year target of between 6 percent and 7 percent.
After an increase in rates for household electricity, gas and other utilities at the New Year, a poll by the independent Levada-Center put United Russia’s popularity in January at its lowest level in more than a year.
“Without question the protest mood is growing, but it is not yet clear what direction it will take,” said Sergei Markov, a political analyst and United Russia lawmaker in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.
United Russia still strongly outpolls the only other parties in the State Duma: the Communist Party, flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, widely seen as a tool of the Kremlin, and the pro-Kremlin Just Russia.
However, opponents say United Russia has abused its grip on the levers of power to get out the vote in its favor.
Independent monitoring group Golos has accused United Russia of violations in previous elections and said it expected more yesterday, including repeat voting and pressure by state bosses and university administrators to vote for the party.
“Regional authorities will have to fulfil orders to ensure United Russia high results despite its slipping popularity,” Golos deputy director Grigory Melkoyants said. “They will have to employ some tricks to meet these expectations.”
Last month, Putin’s longtime Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said that “fair and honest” elections were needed to ensure support for the Kremlin’s economic reform efforts.
After eight years as president, Putin steered Medvedev into the Kremlin in 2008 to avoid violating a constitutional bar on a third straight term. He is still seen as Russia’s paramount leader and has shown no sign of plans to give that role up.
Convincing United Russia victories yesterday and in December would further bolster the popular Putin’s mandate.
While a significant decline in support for the party would not affect Putin’s chances of winning the presidency if he runs, it would hurt his image by signalling discontent with the power structure he has built in the past decade.
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