Russia held local elections Sunday but most observers are crying Foul!

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party has swept local elections that other parties and independent observers said were awash with voting irregularities.

Despite the worst economic crisis in a decade, the ruling United Russia party won an average 66 percent of Sunday’s vote in nine regional parliamentary elections and dominated thousands of municipal votes, according to preliminary results released by the Central Elections Commission late Monday.

Opponents claimed part of the overwhelming support was down to electoral machinations. Analysts said the economic troubles have not yet hit hard enough to turn voters en masse against the popular Putin’s deeply entrenched party.

Oleg Morozov, one of United Russia’s leaders, claimed that the vote had demonstrated the voters’ approval of the government’s anti-crisis efforts.

Russia’s only independent election monitoring organization, Golos, alleged “mass violations” in several regions. It said the greatest number of complaints came from Tatarstan, where United Russia garnered 80 percent of the vote — its best result.

United Russia overwhelmingly dominates Russian politics, and critics say the party and submissive authorities routinely manipulate ballot counts, pressure voters and block opposition politicians from running for office.

The fact that Putin, rather than President Dmitri Medvedev, is invoked so casually by the AP demonstrates the extent of the backsliding of Russia’s democratization effort.  Almost nobody believes that the last national election much mattered; everyone pretty much assumes Putin’s still calling the shots.  Indeed, as Moscow Times notes, a recent survey found that only 12 percent of Russians believe Medvedev is in charge.

A piece in today’s Stanford Review on the elections has the devasting title, “Russian Elections: The Latin American Model” but makes a mixed point:

When you read about elections in Russia today, think of Mexico in 1970. Basically, the ruling government party cheats to run up the score but would win either way. On the flip side, the opposition is divided and has little legitimacy. The people know that elections will change nothing and have little interest in electoral politics. If angered, the likely outcome is a riot rather than a protest vote.

The same, incidentally, was true of the election that nominally brought Medvedev to power last year.  Had Putin been eligible to run for re-election as president and the contest had been run strictly according to Hoyle, most observers believe Putin would have won.   He’s an effective politician and has been telling aggrieved Russians what they want to hear.  

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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