Putin's Russia not so united any more
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's carefully-cultivated strongman image has taken a hard knock with Russia's parliamentary election. His ruling United Russia party has suffered major losses, its share of the vote falling from 64 per cent to barely more than half. The jolt will not prevent him from retaking the presidency in polls next March - there is no more identifiable candidate - but have severely dented any belief that the job, as in Soviet Union times, was his for as long as he liked. Democracy, while not thriving, is, after all, still alive and there is no better chance for it to now take hold and blossom.
Voters' discontent with United Russia's policies and the autocratic ways of Putin have robbed the party of its two-thirds parliamentary majority. The bull market for oil that had injected so much energy into the moribund economy of the 1990s and had helped propel Putin's popularity was not in itself sustainable for growth - the global financial crisis put paid to that. Topping concerns at the election were unemployment, high prices, a slowdown in real wage growth, a dilapidated welfare system and corruption. The stability that had been promised seemed in doubt, so the electorate looked elsewhere.
For Putin, that means making decisions in line with democratic rule. If his party is to have any chance of governing effectively, he will have to forge a coalition with disparate political factions. Significant opponents, the Communist Party chief among them, have gained enough popular ground to make them legislatively meaningful. The far-reaching reforms to open the economy that the business community has long called for will go a way to fixing Russia's problems, and there is now every chance that the government will be forced to implement them.
Shaking the system will challenge the powerful barons whose support is crucial for Putin's rule. Reform will hurt their privileged positions, but Putin's political survival now depends on doing what voters want. That can only be attained by truly embracing democracy.