A Well-Managed Democracy

The world’s biggest “managed democracy” went to the polls on Sunday to choose new members for parliament, and the results did not surprise anybody.

With most of the vote counted, Vladimir Putin’s favorite political party, United Russia, was reported with about 50 percent, way ahead of the second-place populist LDPR with 15.1 percent, the Communists in third with 14.9 percent, and the left-of-center Just Russia fourth with 6.4 percent.

It is indicative of no change; in the last election for the Duma, in 2011, United Russia won 49 percent of the vote.

Even if the outcome had been closer, it would not have made much difference, since all three of those parties usually vote with United Russia on major issues. They also avoid direct criticism of Putin, who wields an 80 percent approval rating and an effective security apparatus.

There was reportedly concern in the Kremlin that disgruntlement over hardships due to the economic sanctions imposed by the West for the Ukraine grab would seriously erode support for United Russia. But that didn’t happen, at least according to official vote counts.

Arguably the biggest, perhaps the only, question about the election was the degree of vote-rigging and the possibility of street protests like the kind that followed the 2011 elections.

To avert such unpleasantness, Putin had a two-pronged, or high-road/low road, strategy: He appointed Ella Pamfilova, a human rights advocate, to head the Election Commission in order to ensure a free and fair process. Pamfilova did not disappoint, declaring late Sunday that she was “fully confident that the elections are proceeding in a quite legitimate way.”

At the same time, the low road to a smooth victory was paved with new restrictions on the presence of overly-inquisitive journalists at polling stations, requiring advance registration and limiting them to one station.

Of course, the natural exuberance of the democratic process could not be entirely contained. In some cases, webcams installed at polling stations captured election officials stuffing ballot boxes. In the Siberian city of Barnaul, there was said to be “carousel” voting — people bused around polling stations. The monitoring group Golos said it received more than 1,300 complaints from around the country by late afternoon.

As the polls closed, Pamfilova was forced to admit — with understated elegance — that the election “wasn’t sterile.” However, she said that irregularities were not bad enough to justify nullifying any results.

Evidently, the Russian people didn’t expect much from the elections. Turnout was markedly low, at about 39 percent, compared to 60 percent in 2011.

So, to say it plainly, the Russian elections were boring.

Even Vladimir Putin seemed bored. He said he didn’t know yet if he would seek a fourth presidential term in 2018. The prospect of becoming the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, if he lasts until 2024, did not seem to perk him up. On election day, he admitted that “things are tough” economically, but the results were “good.” The glum routine is even getting him down.

But Russians understandably prefer the predictability of “managed democracy” to the economic and political free-fall of the pre-Putin years. And compared to the Soviet era, the repression is child’s play.

Being a dissident in Putin’s Russia is a risky business that could land someone in a jail or a morgue. But it’s still a liberal utopia compared to the horrors of Stalinism and the Gulag, or even the dreary totalitarianism of Leonid Brezhnev. The worst of it seems to be the corruption and cronyism — “Stalinism leavened by kleptomania,” in columnist George Will’s bon mot of a few days ago.

Putin’s dominance of Russian politics, however distasteful, does provide a brief respite from a world that almost everywhere else is falling apart. It might be going too far to call it an island of stability in a sea of chaos, but compared, say, to the black hole in Syria, an uneventful election in Russia qualifies as good news.

As Americans stagger toward their own November polling, they might appreciate a little more predictability in their politics, a little less noise and a little more stability.

Still, no matter how high the negativity numbers may be in the United States, it is far preferable to the well-managed democracy of Vladimir Putin.

It is the real thing, with all its ups and downs. B’ezras Hashem, America will get through it in one piece, even if the process won’t be sterile.

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