The failure of United Russia to break the 50 percent level in Sunday’s Duma election is a major shock, given its huge structural advantages and the relentless efforts of the Russian government to undermine, marginalize, discredit, starve, and crush any potential opposition.
Putin spit out a statement that this result was “optimal.” Tell me another one! Some of his pilot fish have elaborated on his statement, claiming that (a) a win is a win, and (b) the narrow margin gives the lie to allegations about vote fraud, intimidation, etc. That’s even more hilarious, (b) especially. The supposed Putin juggernaut can’t even muster 50 percent despite the structural advantages AND its shameless vote rigging, especially in all the usual places (e.g., Chechnya).
So what does this bode for the future? Many are asking what Putin does now. Several measures are likely:
- Even more populism, with lavish promises regarding pensions, state investments, limitations on increases in utility tariffs.
- Nationalist appeals, complete with dark tales about foreign conspiracies to destroy Russia.
- Relatedly, even more truculence in foreign policy, e.g., Syria, BMD, the Near Abroad.
- A pretty brutal purge of cadres in United Russia. I think Medvedev might carry the can on this one.
But the important thing about this election is that the question is no longer merely what will Putin do?, but what will Putin be forced to react to?
Authoritarian systems like Russia’s under Putin depend very, very heavily on the Wizard of Oz effect. The perception that the leader is a great and powerful wizard, unchallenged and unchallengeable. Putin has quite clearly cultivated such an image.
But a Russian electorate, mulish and apathetic as it is, has pulled back the curtain. It has shown that the giant projected image of a strong, popular leader is just a product of political technology.
This completely changes the dynamics going forward. Any challenge to an authoritarian leader is daunted by coordination problems. In the political science literature, there is the concept of “falsification of preferences”, whereby people in authoritarian regimes disguise their true feelings about it, and feign support out of fear of retribution. Given this aura of popularity, any individual is reluctant to step out, in the belief that others will support the regime. Thus, given this belief, it is difficult to coordinate opposition to an authoritarian leader, permitting him to thrive despite the fact that he is actually unpopular.
Once this belief is punctured, however, the equilibrium can shift rapidly from broad (though feigned) support, to widespread opposition.
The election results create this very real risk for Putin at the popular level. He must also face challenges within the elite, and within the siloviki in particular. As I have noted many times, he plays the role as balancer among competing factions within the elite. His ability to do so depends crucially on the perception that he is in fact powerful and indispensable. That perception has been dented by the election, making him far more vulnerable to challenge from within the elite. Individual bureaucrats will have to figure out how the political winds will blow, and will trim accordingly. Deals made in exchange to support challengers that would have been unimaginable Friday are now conceivable. Potential challengers will be emboldened. The factions will attempt to exploit the weakening of the balancer by attempting to achieve dominance over their rivals in the belief that Putin’s power to intervene is limited. (Think of a mafia war when the capo di tutti capi is weakened.)
Which all means that Putin will be on the defensive. Given this, he is likely to try to preempt the opposition, popular and inter-elite, by cracking down. The crackdown on any opponents within the elite, real or imagined, is likely to be swift and unrelenting. (This is why the Kirov scenario is not outside the realm of possibility.)
The crackdown on dissent expressed by ordinary Russians will be more challenging. Going all Muscovite on the opposition poses considerable risk of galvanizing and unifying the opposition, and destroying any pretense that Putin is a popular embodiment of Russia and Russians. But being soft will make it easier for the palpable discontent to coalesce into a real political force. Given that the result was likely unexpected, any response is likely to be ad hoc and extemporized, increasing the potential for mistakes.
During the financial crisis, I noted that regimes like Putin’s are extremely brittle. Due to the coordination game aspect of authoritarian rule, when authoritarian regimes fall, they collapse quickly. The crucial element opponents face is overcoming the problems of coordinating their opposition. Both within the elite, and the populace more broadly, the Duma elections have undermined the belief that the wizard is all powerful. Maintenance of this belief is key to preventing coordinated opposition.
This election results challenge this belief. This has the potential to change dramatically the dynamics of the Russian political system in the next 3 months leading up to the presidential vote. Putin will do everything possible to try to restore the belief. But it is easier to maintain it when it is unquestioned, that to reestablish it when it is in doubt.