The Russian legislative elections of December 4, 2011 saw a significant decrease of public support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Winning the election with a mere 49.3% of the vote, United Russia’s numbers were down from 64.3% of the vote in 2007. The message is undoubtably clear; the Russian population’s seemingly unwavering faith in former President—and current Prime Minister—Putin is quickly waning.
United Russia won 238 seats to the State Duma – 10 more than necessary for an absolute majority – while losing its previous constitutional majority status. Whereas United Russia lost 77 seats, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation gained 35 seats, A Just Russia gained 26 seats, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia gained 16 seats. Voter turnout registered at 60.1%.
Since the December 4 elections, national and international critics have quickly come to question the legitimacy of United Russia’s victory.
The GOLOS (“Vote” or “Voice”) Association, the only independent election monitor in Russia, reported approximately 5,300 complaints regarding violations of electoral law, mostly linked to Prime Minister Putin’s United Russia party. State employees and students were reportedly pressured into voting for United Russia by their employers and professors.
In response, GOLOS leader Lilya Shibanova was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in a politically motivated move by the Russian government. GOLOS has come under severe governmental pressure since the election; being funded by American and European grants, the Russian organization has been accused of Western partiality.
Several international organizations and publications have also scrutinized and criticized the December legislative elections. Working in correspondence with political scientists from the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, the Wall Street Journal published a comprehensive report outlining a number of inconsistencies and anomalies in the voting system. These “red flags” suggest widespread electoral fraud, casting doubt on as many as 14 million of the 65.7 million votes reportedly cast.
United States’ Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has since commented on the electoral debate. "When authorities fail to prosecute those who attack people for exercising their rights or exposing abuses, they subvert justice and undermine the people’s confidence in their governments," Clinton said in a speech at the meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Europe’s biggest rights watchdog.
"As we have seen in many places, and most recently in the Duma elections in Russia,” she added, “elections that are neither free nor fair have the same effect."
Twenty years subsequent to his resignation as Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev has also added to the debate. "The country’s leaders must admit there were numerous falsifications and rigging and the results do not reflect the people’s will," he said. "In my opinion, disregard for public opinion is discrediting the authorities and destabilizing the situation."
Former Soviet president Gorbachev went a step further in his attack, and demanded not only an election re-run, but for Prime Minister Putin to step down immediately. “I would advise Vladimir Putin to leave now. He has had three terms: two as president and one as prime minister. Three terms – that is enough,” Gorbachev said on Russian radio mere days after the election.
“There shouldn’t be a monopoly of power, we don’t need any tsars. He should do the same thing I did. That way, he would be able to preserve all the positive things he did.”
The Russian public appears to be in overwhelming agreement with the former Soviet president. Less than a week after the December 4 elections, mass protests spread throughout the country; as many as 50,000 people gathered in Moscow in the biggest anti-government rally since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Despite prior confusion in the early days of the protests, Russian protesters soon found a unified voice. Their demands include the annulment of the legislative election results, the resignation of the head of the election commission, an official investigation into vote fraud, and most importantly, democratic and open elections in the near future.
Not surprisingly, the Russian government has turned a blind eye to public demonstration and furthermore, has arrested more than 1,000 protesters. Television channels funded by the Russian state were pressured to ignore the protests, instead focusing on rallies in support of the government.
Further developments have since forced all federal television to broadcast widespread coverage; state TV workers reportedly threatened to stop broadcasts unless permitted full coverage of the anti-government protests.
The rallies and demonstrations have continued throughout December; another large round of protests modeled on that of December 10 took place on December 24.
Prime Minister Putin has since harshly criticized the public demonstrations and largely ignored or rejected the public’s demands. “[The protesters] have no united programme, clear ways of reaching their aims, which are themselves not clear," Putin said in comments broadcasted on state television. “I have difficulty imagining who from their ranks could do concrete work for the development of our state," he later added.
Most alarmingly, Prime Minister Putin has shown no sign of withdrawing his candidacy in the presidential elections of the upcoming year.
“As a politician and a presidential candidate, Putin still has the support of a majority. And we should treat the opinion of a majority with respect,” said Dmitry Peskov, the premier’s spokesman.
Despite these governmental claims, public opinion and attitudes toward the former president have seen a clear and significant shift since the last decade. The fabricated “majority” of the Russian public has been unmasked, while the true majority has spoken.
Twelve years ago, Prime Minister (then President) Putin promised stability under his leadership, but stability is no longer the sole or main focus of the Russian population. The Russian people now demand transparent, fair, and democratic elections; they demand that their voice be heard.