(World Economic Forum / flickr)
Russia's parliamentary election last Sunday saw Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, receive slightly less than 50 percent of the popular vote. In most countries, this would be viewed as a stunning victory. Instead, it is being interpreted by the Russian and Western press as a rebuke by a restive Russian public to Putin and his policies.
Although the electoral results are undoubtedly a signal to Putin and his political protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev, that Russian voters will not blindly follow wherever the Kremlin leads, in reality they do not portend seismographic shifts in the Russian political landscape.
Some reports, including that of The New York Times earlier this week, have argued that with only 238 seats in the 450-seat Duma, as opposed to the 315 parliamentary seats it previously held, United Russia will now be unable to change the Russian constitution unilaterally. True enough -- but what they fail to mention is that the Kremlin has little need to make any significant constitutional changes in the foreseeable future. The constitution is already stacked in favor of the presidency, and even with a reduced number of seats in parliament for United Russia, the Duma will still be compliant, since no new parties have gained seats.
The Duma is already relatively powerless compared to what Russia watchers call the "super" presidency enshrined in the 1993 constitution that was hastily written by Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first elected president. Between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and 1993, Yeltsin faced a recalcitrant parliament (then called the Congress of People's Deputies), whose members resisted his attempts to reform the country's troubled economy. The standoff reached its climax in the fall of 1993, when Yeltsin disbanded parliament. When Russian deputies trapped inside the parliament building broke out and attempted to take control of a national television station, Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on the building, putting an end to the showdown.
The constitution that Yeltsin then forced through by popular referendum in December 1993 resolved the issue of legislative executive power in no uncertain terms. It allows the president to rule by decree in almost every area but the budget. At the same time, the president has the authority to disband the Duma and call new elections should parliament refuse three times to accept the president's choice of prime minister, and the executive branch has full control of the country's security and defense ministries.