Imagine a Canadian parliamentary election in which the ruling party, habituated to governing with a comfortable majority , received diminished support but still managed to retain control of the most seats in the legislature. Not very interesting news, is it? This sort of thing happens all the time in a stable, functioning democracy like Canada's.
In Russia, however, it's a different story. On the surface, Sunday's parliamentary elections didn't produce any shocking results: United Russia, the party of ruling prime minister Vladimir Putin, went from 64% of the vote four years ago to barely 50%, but without any major bloc picking up the remaining votes, the party still dominates the Duma (Russia's parliament) and maintains its majority rule.
But that's about where the simplicity ends. The result, and the election process as a whole, has sent shockwaves across the country and around the world, thanks to the added elements of mass protests, accusations of fraud, capital flight, international criticism and evidence of democratic failure.
So here's a quick look at some of the topics making headlines in the aftermath of Sunday's vote:
Electoral fraud: The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe sent observers to monitor the fairness of Russia's election, and their initial assessment is not good. The vote was "well-organized", but "the contest was also slanted in favour of the ruling party, the election administration lacked independence, most media were partial and state authorities interfered unduly at different levels," said OSCE spokesman Petros Efthymiou. There were also charges of stuffed ballot boxes and pre-emptive censorship, with co-ordinated hacking attacks on liberal media outlets, and observers from Russian election monitor Golos banned from entering voting stations.
By the standards of international diplomacy, judgement from foreign governments appeared to be swift: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that she had "serious concerns" about the fairness of Russia's vote, and Germany's foreign minister said the country still had a "long way to go" before meeting European standards.
Some Russian TV broadcasts didn't do much to alleviate concerns about the results. According to one image making the rounds today (in this case via Mother Jones), at one point 146% of voters in the region of Rostov were shown as having turned out to vote:
Protests: Far away from the halls of the OSCE, the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg have been filled with people who agree that the Russian election was - to put it mildly - flawed. Reuters and AP yesterday reported that between 5,000 and 10,000 people marched in Moscow to protest government interference in the vote. Chants of "Putin is a thief!" and "Russia without Putin!" have been filling the air at many marches (although there have also been confrontations with pro-Putin groups at these sites).
Some of Russia's best-known democracy activists have been detained or arrested, including opposition politicians Boris Nemstov and Ilya Yashin and blogger Alexei Navalny. Navalny has been an outspoken anti-corruption crusader, and was one of the chief architects of a campaign to get out the vote for anyone other than United Russia, bestowing on them the name "Party of Crooks and Thieves."
In response, mass amounts of troops have been deployed in Moscow, making arrests and breaking up marches. They are enforcing a ban on unapproved rallies, which seems to have had little success in preventing the demonstrations. Hundreds of people have been arrested on the second day of altercations.
Market troubles: With a picture forming of rigged elections that nonetheless could not deliver the result sought by the party in power, financial markets didn't take long to react. Both Russian stock markets and its currency dropped significantly today, especially after Putin indicated his own uncertainties by announcing an imminent cabinet reshuffle when he becomes president once again (assuming, of course, that he wins the election) next year. The Wall Street Journal said that money, which is already leaving the country at a high rate, is likely to flee at even greater speeds amid all the post-electoral protests and upheaval.
The Blame Game: Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President who has agreed to swap jobs with Putin next year in order to put his former (and future) boss back in the presidency, will likely find himself even more diminished after Sunday's vote. It's possible for Putin to argue that United Russia's showing in this election is a result of Medvedev's presidency, meaning he can be sidelined once Putin reclaims his place in the boss's chair.
Ironically, many commentators have suggested that it was this sense of entitlement on Putin's part that has led to both United Russia's drop in fortunes - in an allegedly rigged election, no less - and the protests currently filling the streets. Navalny's blog had made a big deal of Putin's apparent disregard for Russian opinion with his plan to simply switch back to being president, a job he gave up due to constitutional limits that he has since managed to have removed. The announcement that he and his protégé Medvedev would now swap back before presidential elections has cause a great amount cynicism, especially among young Russians who see their thoughts on the matter as being dismissed completely out of hand.
The Russian Spring: Flawed elections, protests in the streets, heavy-handed tactics, dissident social media - events in Russia sound a bit familiar when compared to the Arab Spring uprisings that have caused so much upheaval in the Middle East in the past year.
One person to already make explicit the connection was former U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who tweeted yesterday: "Dear Vlad [Vladimir Putin], The Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you."
Russian reaction was swift - Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov responded with a tweet of his own, saying that McCain reminded him of the March Hare from Alice in Wonderland, and that "it's December already, and he is still thinking of spring."
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