(forbes.com) – Remember in May when Newsweek pondered whether Vladimir Putin’s electability was slipping? And then there was this poor analysis back in 2011 by Agence France Presse, “there are signs that Putin’s once invincible popularity is on the wane.” Call it what it really is — wishful thinking — but, reality is that the ruling United Russia party isn’t waxing or waning. They are steadily holding onto power, with Putin himself having almost no serious rivals. On Sunday, Putin’s party did what it always does: win.
Russians voted in local elections yesterday with more than 6,000 politicians on the ballot. There were no upsets: politicians from United Russia won almost everywhere. Turnout was low, but it is hard to say whether or not that was a protest vote, or if — like here in the States — gubernatorial races don’t ignite people’s passions to go to the polls.
The highest voter turnout was registered in Mordovinia, a state with around 900,000 inhabitants located southeast of Moscow. Some 71% showed up. Vladivostok, a mostly maritime shipping state that’s about an hour and half flight north of Pyongyang, had a low 12.7% turnout.
On the party front, the closest contenders anywhere within the Russian Federation were the Communist Party (around 17%) and the nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party (as much as 20.6%), led by Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky. If you think Putin has it in for the United States and Europe, try getting a load of this guy. CNBC calls him,Russia’s Trump. His party is the closest think to an opposition against Putin. Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption, anti-war technocratic centrist Progress Party did not seem to register on the dial, perhaps because they were not allowed to run. Their Russian language website was totally void of election news. They have no seats in the State Duma, the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Russia’s Election Commission said it did not receive any critical election violations that would have affected the results of the vote. Independent election watchdog, Golos, said there were problems in districts with early voting, but did not say whether those irregularities tipped the scales in favor of United Russia. On Golos’ Russian language website, they said that they recorded 709 reports of violations, roughly 250 more than the official election commission as reported by Vedomosti.
Just how “rigged” was this election for Putin’s allies? Golos said they found voting problems in 55 regions, with 74% of the problems at the mayoral level and the rest at the equivalent of the state level. The most common complaints were “violations of the rights of election observers, commission members and the media” (21.4% of reports); illegal campaigning (13.3%); voter fraud such as voting twice and voting for someone else (22.7%).
Interest in elections has declined because of the a generally weak opposition, Kommersant business daily explained yesterday. Since 2015, the political opposition in the gubernatorial elections have often put out little-known candidates to compete with the establishment players on the ballot. In some regions, election officials have reportedly refused to register some candidates for various declared reasons, usually technical in nature. Opponents that are greenlighted tend to be candidates from Zhirinovsky’s party or the Communists who — despite some here who believe Russia is trying to rebuild its commie empire — could not seriously compete with Team Putin. Another halfway recognizable party, A Just Russia, ideological cousins of the European socialist parties, still does not have a contender. Its founder, Sergei Mironov, was one of four challengers taking on Putin in 2012. He garnered less than 4% of the vote.
Sunday marked the last day of voting before Russia’s presidential elections on March 18, 2018. Putin has not yet confirmed he was running. If he runs and wins, it will be his fourth term as president after two terms as prime minister. He would be on his way to become the longest serving leader of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia since Josef Stalin, a comparison often made to put the two men in the same political camp.
Gleb Kuznetsov, member of the Board of Directors of the Expert Institute for Social Research (EISI), told Kommersant that investors shouldn’t equate regional elections with the national campaign. “Turn-out will be much higher,” he said.
Outside of Russia, the preferred anti-Putin candidate remains Navalny. He is clearly the most palatable by Western standards. But Navalny is currently not allowed to participate in the elections for some arcane reason. Regardless, his polling numbers don’t have him close to Putin, even though many more people respect the man than is let on in the national media. Navalny is no Euromaidan activist, the name given to the pro-European activists that swarmed Ukraine in 2014 and pulled Kiev on what seems to be a permanent course westward. Navalny is a centrist, and while he is also no Cold War spy master like Putin, both men are very much pro-nation state.
But if Sunday’s elections are any indicator, Navalny will need a miracle. Either Putin bows down and hands the reins to someone else in United Russia, or Putin is elected president against next year. That seems like the safest bet.
Russian political scientist Abbas Gallyamov believes United Russia will be at the helm for a long time. “The opposition needs to organize better,” Kommersant reported. “I think the population has an internal, emotional fatigue with this notion of irremovable power,” Gallyamov told the paper.
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