The winds of change blowing in the Arab East appear to have reached Russia. The ruling United Russia party has suffered big losses in Sunday's parliamentary elections in a sign of dramatic shifts in the public mood in Russian society. United Russia polled just under 50 per cent of the popular vote, almost 15 percentage points lower than it did four years ago. It will still occupy more than half the seats in the 450-member State Duma, thanks to votes cast for outsiders, but it will see its majority slashed from 90 to 15 seats. Three opposition parties represented in Parliament have made impressive gains: the Communists will have 92 seats in the new house, an increase of 60 per cent, followed by A Just Russia with 64 seats, up from the current 38 seats, and the Liberal Democrats of Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 56 seats against today's 40 seats. The reduced support for United Russia, which has controlled Parliament for the past 10 years, is partly a reaction to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, which hit people's earnings; it is also a protest against the failure of authorities to rein in corruption, which has slowed Russia's modernisation drive. The election results also indicated people's growing political activism and impatience with the overbearing dominance of the political scene by a single party.
United Russia's election setback deals a blow to its chairman, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, just as he prepares to reclaim the presidency in the March 2012 election under an agreement with President Dmitry Medvedev. Previous election successes of the ruling party — set up in 2001 to provide a political base for President Putin — have closely mirrored his popularity as a strong leader who presided over Russia's resurgence from the chaos of the 1990s. When United Russia swept to a two-thirds constitutional majority in the State Duma in 2007, it was seen as a vote of thanks for Mr. Putin who refused to cling on to power and promoted a younger leader to steer Russia along the path he had charted. However, instead of stepping back, Mr. Putin remained the dominant power behind the throne in the past four years, holding back political and economic reforms proclaimed by his successor. The disappointing performance of United Russia is the writing on the wall. It came two months after the two top leaders announced their decision to switch jobs and barely a week after the party formally nominated Mr. Putin as its candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections. Mr. Putin's assured return appears to have failed to inspire Russians. They have sent a strong message the Kremlin can ignore only at its own peril. People want political competition, they want progressive reform, and they want new leaders.