Russian opposition bemoans voter apathy | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 19.09.2016
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Russian opposition bemoans voter apathy

President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party has won the majority in parliament. The opposition is nearly shut out. But the Kremlin's victory comes from an election with one of the poorest turnouts in history.

Ella Pamfilova wasn't smiling when she emerged before the press Monday morning following a likely sleepless night. The head of Russia's Central Election Commission announced that the Kremlin's United Russia party had won an absolute majority in the Duma with 54 percent of the overall vote in Sunday's parliamentary elections. Changes to how the Russian parliament's 450 total seats are voted for benefitted United Russia. The new election laws have come into force under Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, United Russia's leader.

Mandate for Putin, says Kremlin

For the Kremlin, the election result was a vote of confidence. "Obviously, a large majority of voters have indirectly thrown their support behind the president," said Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.

Putin himself saw the result as a desire for stability. "The situation right now is not easy and people want stability in society and the political system," he said. The president was apparently partly referring to problems in the Russian economy, which has suffered a great deal from low oil prices, but also under Western sanctions as a result of Russia's involvement in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin looking serious in front of a microphone

Vladimir Putin said the election result reflected a desire for stability

The victory is a triumph for a party that five years ago slipped below 50 percent in voter support, with critics calling it the "party of crooks and cons." Protests, especially in Moscow, broke out with accusations of voter fraud.

This time, there were no major violations, Pamfilova said, though isolated cases would be investigated.

Videos have emerged online showing suspected fraud. In the city of Rostov, for example, a woman is seen stuffing multiple ballots into the ballot box. The incident appeared authentic, Grigory Melkonyants of Golos, a nonprofit election oversight organization, told DW. How much fraud there might be overall is difficult to estimate, given the lack of election monitors, according to Melkonyants. Golos had received hundreds of fraud complaints, he said, which his organization needed to verify.

Grigory Melkonyants of the independent election monitor Golos at a laptop

Grigory Melkonyants has received hundreds of fraud complaints

The opposition: Duma not legitimate

Three additional parties from the previous parliament made it over the 5 percent hurdle required to hold seats. The communist and conservative populist parties found themselves each with 12 percent, followed by the left-wing party, A Just Russia, with 6 percent. Though officially in the opposition, all three have previously allied themselves with Kremlin positions.

Liberal, anti-Kremlin parties such as Yabloko and PARNAS won neither with their party lists nor individual candidates. PARNAS chair, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, said the election was neither free nor fair. "The Duma as it is now constituted is no legitimate organ of state power."

Historically low turnout

United Russia's victory comes from an election with a turnout of 48 percent. Even fewer voted in large cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, where just 35 percent of eligible voters showed up to the polls. The historically low turnout is nearly half what it was in the 2011 election.

The "collapse in turnout," particularly in Moscow, was the real takeaway from the election, said well-known opposition politician, Vladimir Ryzhkov, who tried unsuccessfully to be directly elected. "The most educated, dynamic, democratic voters just didn't go vote," he told DW. This was the "main catastrophe," he added. Dmitry Gudkov, another well-known opposition leader, also failed in his Duma bid. Writing on Facebook, he blamed the low turnout and voter ambivalence.

Many experts in Germany were surprised by how few people voted. "The Duma's legitimacy will suffer, of course," said Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations. Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs focused on voter apathy. "Russia's parliament is a weak institution of power anyway," she said. In addition, she said, election rules were changed in such a way that opposition stood little chance, leaving many voters resigned to a foregone conclusion.

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