Leaders of Russia’s ruling United Russia party were in a good mood on Sunday night as the results of the country’s local elections streamed in. ‘You have received the votes of the people, who trust you’, party chairman (and former Prime Minister and President) Dmitry Medvedev told candidates. ‘All our [gubernatorial] candidates … will win in the first round … and likewise in the regional and municipal parliaments United Russia will form a majority in every region without exception’, added party general secretary Andrei Turchak.
Turchak wasn’t exactly right about the results, but not far off. United Russia has reason to be happy. Its candidates for governor were elected with thumping majorities, even in Irkutsk, where it had been predicted it might lose. And in city and regional elections, the party was consistently top, generally getting around 45% of the vote, some 30% or so above its nearest competitors, the Communists and LDPR.
And yet, that’s not what you’d think if you went by the stories in the Western media today, which focused almost entirely on miniscule gains by supporters of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. ‘Russia opposition makes gains in local elections,’ ran the headline on the BBC website. ‘Navalny allies win council seats as Putin’s party claims victory’, said that in the Guardian. ‘Alexei Navalny’s allies claim council wins in Russia local elections’, shouts Deutsche Welle. And so on. You’d imagine that the elections were indicators of some significant shift in the political tide.
So what were these great gains? Navalny-backed candidates won 2 seats in the city of Tomsk, and 5 in Novosibirsk. That’s it. A grand total of 7 council seats. To be fair, it’s 7 more than they’ve ever had before, and so in that respect, it’s progress. But it’s hardly a significant result in the grander scheme of things. Across the country, United Russia governors were being elected with shares of the vote of 70 or so percent. Is ‘Opposition makes gains’ really the appropriate way of reporting the results? Methinks not, but it’s an interesting insight into the mentality of the Western press corps.