Russian voters dealt Vladimir Putin’s ruling party a heavy blow on Sunday by cutting its parliamentary majority in an election that showed growing unease with his domination of the country as he prepares to reclaim the presidency. Incomplete results showed Putin’s United Russia was struggling even to win 50 percent of the votes, compared with more than 64 percent four years ago. Opposition parties said even that outcome had been inflated by fraud.
Although Putin is still likely to win a presidential election in March, Sunday’s result could dent the authority of the man who has ruled for almost 12 years with a mixture of hardline security policies, political acumen and showmanship but was booed and jeered after a martial arts bout last month.
United Russia had 49.6 percent of the votes after results were counted in 51 percent of voting districts for the election to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Two exit polls had earlier put it on 45.5 and 48.5 percent. “These elections are unprecedented because they were carried out against the background of a collapse in trust in Putin, (President Dmitry) Medvedev and the ruling party,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal opposition leader barred from running.
“I think that the March (presidential) election will turn into an even bigger political crisis; disappointment, frustration, with even more dirt and disenchantment, and an even bigger protest vote.”
Putin made his mark restoring order in a country suffering from a decade of chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He moved quickly to crush a separatist rebellion in the southern Muslim Chechen region, restored Kremlin control over wayward regions and presided over an economic revival.
He has maintained a tough man image with stunts such as riding a horse bare chested, tracking tigers and flying a fighter plane. But the public appears to have wearied of the antics and his popularity, while still high, has fallen.
Many voters, fed up with widespread corruption, refer to United Russia as the party of swindlers and thieves and resent the huge gap between the rich and poor. Some fear Putin’s return to the presidency may herald economic and political stagnation.