President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party decisively swept regional elections, according to results tabulated Monday, paradoxically confronting his top-down authoritarian system with a serious challenge. Since December’s parliamentary vote, when large numbers of demonstrators unexpectedly began protesting rigged elections, Putin and his allies have been trying to regain what had been an undisputed grip on power. Sunday’s election would appear to confirm they had done so. The United Russia party won all five governorships at stake and dominated all six regional legislatures up for election, along with a host of municipal councils and mayoralties. Yet political observers called it an illusory victory because serious challengers were kept off the ballot, either through the inventive use of election laws or by secret deals. That meant Putin opponents found no outlet at the polls for their anger. “If the party of power continues playing games with imitation elections,” said Boris Makarenko, an independent political analyst, “the opposition will have to challenge them on the streets instead of at the polls.” Makarenko, chairman of the board of the Center for Political Technologies, said it was in United Russia’s interest to work for political pluralism, to determine the country’s direction through elections. But he was unsure, he said, whether authorities understood that.
Putin took the results as a sign of victory. “I believe that they represent one more step confirming the intention of voters to support the current institutions of government and the development of Russian statehood,” he said Monday. Georgy Bovt, a political analyst and columnist, said the election results suggested that no opposition has been able to develop on the regional level. He noted that the strength of the opposition has not been tested in Moscow, where elections were not held. “Probably it’s a movement limited to Moscow,” he said. “In provincial Russia, it’s nonexistent. And they are not up to the challenge of opposing United Russia.” A look at the city of Izhevsk, 600 miles east of Moscow, offers a sense of the opposition’s despair. Andrei Konoval, a journalist and a leader of the Patriots of Russia party, was too afraid to speak to an American reporter who visited Izhevsk last month before the election. He was convinced that talking to the reporter could be sufficient pretext for the authorities to take him off the ballot — after all, Putin had been sending an anti-American message from Moscow. Monday, with the election over and his efforts a failure, he spoke at length by telephone.