Thousands gathered in Moscow over the weekend to protest Russia’s falsified parliamentary election. The demonstrators gave the Kremlin a two-week ultimatum to schedule a new election, allow liberal political parties to appear on the ballot, and release opposition members detained during protests earlier in the week.
These are obviously reasonable demands. Putin’s party, United Russia, would definitely fare worse if truly free elections were held in the near future. But the reality of politics in Russia is that it wouldn’t fare that much worse. A poll by the independent Levada Center in late November predicted that 53 percent of Russians would vote for United Russia — which is actually higher than the 49.3 percent that it nominally received on December 4.
This doesn’t suggest that the election wasn’t fraudulent. It was. United Russia’s losses would surely have been greater had it not been for ballot stuffing and so-called “carousel voting.” Even in a free repeat election, however, it’s difficult to imagine United Russia receiving anything less than a very sizeable plurality of the vote. After all, this weekend’s protests throughout Russia may have attracted 60,000 in Moscow, but in Kazan and Rostov only 100–200 showed up.
Why would even a plurality of Russians support a party widely known as the “party of crooks and thieves”? The answer is United Russia’s abuse of administrative resources. This has been inexplicably overlooked in recent days. Here are a few examples of how Putin’s party attracts voters: Teachers tell parents to back United Russia if they want to ensure funding for their child’s school. United Russia officials promise subsidies and other advantages to factories and companies whose employees vote for the party. In a leaked letter to Putin, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov reported that “95.5 percent of servicemen and family members voted in the Duma election and 80 percent of them for United Russia.” Serdyukov identified the “best bases” where the party received up to 99.8 percent. These bases will be rewarded with new equipment, facility upgrades, and maybe even additional pay increases.
But without its ability to exploit these and other administrative resources, I honestly believe that United Russia would barely meet the 7 percent threshold for entering parliament. It has little if any genuine support. The protesters on the streets of Moscow — along with Western governments — should continue to dispute the falsified parliamentary elections, but they should also draw attention to Russia’s fundamental problems in governance.
— Daniel Vajdic is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.