As the results of Russia's October 14 local elections show, the rumors of United Russia's death have been greatly exaggerated.
Protests against Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party, starting in December of last year, appeared to shake the foundations of the Russian political titan's hold on power. But Putin won a decisive victory in the March 4 presidential elections, and the October 14 elections further confirmed United Russia's continued dominance of Russian politics. The party won the majority of the 5,000 regional and local elections held on Sunday, including all five gubernatorial elections.
The legitimacy of the election results is somewhat marred, however, by low voter turnout--hovering in the 30-40% range in most regions--and accusations of electoral fraud. According to the independent monitoring organization Golos, there were "open and transparent violations of the law, and nobody in government is doing anything about it."
More problematic than cases of fraud, however, are the restrictive and undemocratic electoral laws that the Kremlin implemented for this election. In elections for provincial governorships, for instance, candidates were required to represent a party--preventing any independents from running. Furthermore, those candidates had to have the endorsement of at least five percent of lawmakers in regional legislatures, which are largely in the control of United Russia. There is also the problem of what Golos (via the Huffington Post), refers to as "spoiler candidates," who are "used to steal votes from genuine opposition candidates" in single seat races.
The Huffington Post's analysis doesn't make it entirely clear whether the so-called spoiler candidates are simply third parties with low levels of support or are actually being enlisted by the Kremlin to create problems for the opposition. Either way, the obvious solution is enacting instant runoff voting for single seat races. That would allow voters to choose whichever minor candidates they prefer as their first choice without harming their preference among the major candidates--whether that preference be for United Russia or an opposition party. In multi-seat elections for local legislatures, a more uniform proportional representation system nationwide would help to prevent parties from manipulating local election rules to their advantage.
While electoral fraud is a problem in Russia and should continue to be closely monitored, the electoral structures that Russia chooses will likely have an even greater impact on its developing democracy. Those systems should be given more attention in outside media coverage of Russian elections.