The parliamentary elections that took place in Russia will I suspect one day be seen as the moment when western reporting of Russia tipped over from the merely mendacious to the completely delusional. Reading western newspapers one would think that Russia is in a state of imminent revolution following a falsified election, which nonetheless recorded a massive slump in support for its government.
The reality is that this is the first fully free election held in Russian history, which has not been held in conditions of crisis. The government party won a convincing victory but there has also been a significant and probably permanent swing to the left. Support for the government party fell from the previous election in 2007 but that was to be expected given the very unusual circumstances in which that earlier election had been fought. Russia was then on the brink of a transition with Putin ceding the Presidency to Medvedev who was untested and little known. Disputed elections in the Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrghyzia and Serbia had been used as a pretext to stage colour revolutions. There were also serious foreign policy challenges with the Bush administration pushing to admit the Ukraine and Georgia to the NATO membership programme and planning to install interceptor missiles in eastern Europe. A strong government majority in the parliament was therefore deemed essential. Putin accordingly took direct charge of the election campaign. The stops were pulled out and the Russian electorate, which is sophisticated and mature, understanding the urgency gave the government party an overwhelming mandate with 64% of the vote.
The situation this year is completely different. Putin is returning to the Presidency and there is no transition. The colour revolutions are discredited. The attempt to bring the Ukraine and Georgia into NATO has been seen off. Russia has even managed to gain entry to the World Trade Organisation on favourable terms. Not surprisingly with the return to more normal politics the vote for the government party has fallen from a lopsided 64% to a still impressive 49%. This is still substantially more than the 37% the governing party had won in the parliamentary election of 2003, which it was deemed to have won.
Whilst this is the main result of the election there are a number of other things that can be said about it:
1. Notwithstanding ritual criticisms of the elections by some people in the west and some of the opposition parties there is no reason to doubt the overall honesty of the election and of the results. The outcome is consistent with pre election opinion polls and with the two big exit polls. Whilst there may have been a number of violations in a number of places they cannot therefore have been on such a scale as to affect the overall result. Nor has there been any significant alienation from the election process as some western media commentators allege. The Times has claimed in an editorial that due to pervasive cynicism turnout has been much lower this year but in reality at 60% turnout is roughly at the same level as it was in 2007 when it was 63%.
2. There is nothing in these elections that suggests that Putin will have any difficulty winning the Presidential election next year. His popularity has consistently been greater than the government party’s, which nonetheless won 49% of the vote. He should therefore have no difficulty obtaining the 50% he needs to win the election without a run off.
3. The big winners in the election were the two left wing parties, the Communist Party and A Just Russia. The latter is a socialist party but one which judging from its programme (which calls for selective nationalisation and a progressive tax system to equalise incomes) is considerably to the left of socialist or social democratic parties in western Europe.
The Communist Party increased its share of the vote from 11% to 19% and A Just Russia from just under 8% to 13%. It seems both parties were successful in winning over large numbers of young voters. The western media and what passes for liberal opinion in Russia largely ignores these parties and is writing off their increased vote as a protest vote. Such a view is unwarranted and anyway fails to explain why if there was a protest vote the beneficiaries should have been these two parties rather than the two liberal parties that fought the election, Yabloko and Right Cause, which the western media and liberal opinion broadly support. If Putin and the government were facing an uprising by an irate middle class angry about its loss of freedom, as much of the western media claims, then it should have been the liberal parties that ought logically to have been the beneficiaries of the protest vote.
4. The vote for Yabloko and Right Cause was derisory. Yabloko is the more left wing of the various liberal groups and parties and was led in this election by its founder Grigori Yavlinsky, who is the only liberal politician to have come out of the 1990s with honour. Despite this Yabloko’s share of the vote was just over 3%. The more right wing, business oriented, free market supporting Right Cause managed just 0.6%.
The failure of the liberal parties is usually explained in the west by supposedly unfair media coverage. The truth is the diametric opposite. Though the liberal parties have failed to win as much 4% of the total vote they receive a totally disproportionate amount of attention in both the Russian and the western media and on the internet. They get far more attention than does the Communist Party even though it gets five times their number of votes.
I recently read somewhere that the total liberal electorate in Russia is 15% of the total electorate. There is no support for this claim from these election results or indeed from the results of previous elections and this claim appears to have no basis.
5. A constant western media trope in reporting Russia, which also from time to time finds its way into the Russian media, is of the supposed rise of the nationalist ultra right. A huge amount of attention is devoted to this phenomenon. Protests last year by football fans were reported in connection with it and a supposed anti immigration mood allegedly sweeping the country has been talked about in lurid terms.
Nothing in these elections gives support to these fears. The one party that seems to have made an effort to pander to this supposed nationalist mood was Zhirinovsky’s misnamed Liberal Democratic Party. Significantly of the three opposiiton parties in the Russian parliament Zhirinovsky’s party was the party that made the least progress, increasing its share of the vote from 9% to 11%. This figure of 11% is the same as the one it achieved in the parliamentary elections of 2003 whereas the other two opposition parties have substantially improved on the share of the vote they achieved in that year. In other words unlike the other two opposition parties in the parliament Zhirinovsky’s party is standing still.
There undoubtedly are some dangerous and racist individuals in Russia as there are in every country but on the evidence of this election the spectre of a large and sinister nationalist ultra right movement is revealed as largely a figment of the imagination of the reporters who write about it.
In other words what this election shows is that Russia is roughly evenly divided between a large block of conservative voters who are not right wing but who are patriotic and who favour stability and who can be relied upon to support the government and another rather smaller block of voters, which is more idealistic and which consciously adheres to or is attracted by socialist ideas.
As a force of unideological conservatism the party that represents the first block, the governing party United Russia, will never arouse much in the way of enthusiasm. It will always be a but for criticism especially on the part of younger people. This should not however blind one to its underlying strengths, which explain its presently dominant position in Russian politics.
Russian political activism has however not gone away. Talk of stagnation (a nebulous concept at best) is misplaced. That activism is however to be found on the left. This incidentally has been broadly true in Russia since the Nineteenth Century. Since the conservative block that governs the country has no ideology of its own it is receptive to ideas coming from the left. The result is that all the major parties in Russia are now broadly committed to a similar range of policies that could be broadly defined certainly in western terms as left wing. These include a strong welfare system, strong employment protection rights, an active role for the state in economy, free state provided health and education (up to school level), the introduction of a progressive system of taxation, greater provision of kindergartens and child care facilities and the political and economic reintegration and possibly eventual reunification of the former Soviet space.
As for the sort of right wing, free market, neo liberal ideas that have become the orthodoxies in the US and Britain and indeed elsewhere in the west, the abysmal electoral showing of the liberal parties that support these ideas shows that there is no significant constituency for these ideas in Russia at all.
Perhaps it is this latter fact that western commentators find so difficult to accept or understand. Perhaps that is why whilst trumpeting the supposed electoral setback Putin has suffered these commentators ignore the most obvious point of this election, which is the advance of the left. May be it is why these same commentators simply refuse to accept the validity of Russian election results and retreat instead into the bizarre phantasmagoria I have been reading in the newspapers today.