Daniel W. Drezner

Do authoritarian elections matter in Russia? Probably not as much as you think.

Do authoritarian elections matter in Russia?  Probably not as much as you think.

A few months ago I blogged about how the Putin-Medvedev two-step caused some grumbling among Russian elites.  Russian parliamentary elections were held over the weekend, and as it turns out there was some grumbling among the public as well

Russians voting in parliamentary elections apparently turned against the ruling United Russia party in large numbers Sunday, exit polls and early results suggested, to the great benefit of the Communist Party.

In what only months ago would have been a nearly unimaginable scenario, the party dominated by Vladimir Putin was predicted to get less than 50 percent of the vote, while polling organizations put the Communists at about 20 percent, nearly double their count in the last election.

Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.

But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.

Well…. that’s the odd thing about how this plays out in Russia.  On the one hand, elections like these do matter, because they dent the veneer of an effective authoritarian being in control.  Despite rigging the game, it appears that Putin and his loyalists couldn’t secure the desired result.  Any time an authoritarian aparatus demonstrates fallibility is not a good day for the authoritarian apparatus. 

On the other hand…. Putin and his cronies have two to three serious advantages going into the presidential elections.  First, they can use this election as a wake-up call.  By turning up the public spending taps (which high oil prices will allow them to do) they can probably buy some more loyalty.  Second, they can be more ruthless in rigging the electoral game to ensure Putin’s victory.  In trading off the international legitimacy of elections vs. winning, I suspect Putin will opt for winning. 

Third, and most important, Russia is not like the Middle East, in which a grass-roots organization has been waiting in the wings to challenge the corrupt authoritarian state.  I suspect that what will save Putin is the existing alternatives to Putin — namely, the communists and nationalists.  Russians might not like the status quo, but it’s not like the opposition has covered itself in glory either.  The Liberal Democrats have done no real governing, and the Communists have done way too much governing in its past.  These are not really desirable alternatives. 

Unless a genuine grass-roots democracy movement sprouts up in the Russian tundra, I suspect Putin and his allies will muddle through the presidential elections.  What’s more interesting is whether this event triggers some longer-term planning on the part of Putin or his opposition. 

What do you think?