One of the least understood facts about modern Russia's history is that in the spring of 2003 Vladimir Putin's popularity in opinion polls dropped below 50%. This occurred right after his second invasion of Chechnya, spurned by the Moscow apartment bombings, began to go horribly wrong, and just before he arrested Mikhail Trepashkin (who was investigating the bombings) and Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who was toying with the idea of running against Putin in the 2004 presidential poll).
So Putin knows full well that his actual base of support in the country is paper thin, which is why he moved to aggressively to block foreign election observers from participating in the Duma elections to be held in a few weeks, elections he plans to use as a springboard to remain in power indefinitely. And now new polling data, reported by the Moscow Times, shows just how right Putin is about his vulnerability and his need to use mafia tactics to cling to power:
With less than a month to go before State Duma elections, United Russia's popularity appears to be withering as higher food prices sink in and the novelty of President Vladimir Putin's decision to lead the party in the vote wears off. A Kremlin-ordered opinion poll released Friday indicated that support for the party has dropped 6 percentage points over the past two weeks, said the pollster, state-run VTsIOM. Another major polling agency, the independent Public Opinion Foundation, said United Russia's popularity had peaked at around 44 percent and remained unchanged for the past month. The two pollsters are the only ones measuring the national popularity of political parties every week. Both registered a significant boost in United Russia's popularity after Putin announced on Oct. 1 that he would lead the party's list of candidates for Duma elections. United Russia, however, is not likely to lose its enormous lead going into the vote on Dec. 2. The ratings of its rivals remained flat or fell in the surveys.
The percentage of voters backing United Russia jumped from 47 percent in August and September to 56 percent by mid-October, according to VTsIOM. But support dropped by 6 percentage points to 50 percent in the latest poll, conducted Nov. 3 and 4. The polls all had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. Leonid Byzov, who conducted the polls for VTsIOM, was reluctant to say whether the drop might indicate the start of a trend. "We need to wait for next week's results to see if this is a trend and not a glitch in our polling techniques," Byzov said.
If United Russia's popularity is eroding, Byzov said, it is due to an inflation-fueled growth in food prices. United Russia likes to portray itself as a major force behind everything good that happens in the country. "Pensioners, or people over 60, showed the biggest decline in support for United Russia -- from 53 percent to 44 percent," Byzov said. "This category of people is the most dependent on the authorities." He said the polls were ordered and paid for by the presidential administration.
The Public Opinion Foundation said support for United Russia had grown from 36 percent before Putin's announcement to 44 percent the week afterward. But the figure has remained nearly unchanged since. The polls also had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. Polling agency official Veronika Perevenzevtseva said the figure of 44 percent was lower than VTsIOM's because the agencies used different polling methods. Both agencies contact 1,600 people nationwide in their weekly surveys. United Russia, meanwhile, is aiming to get 55 percent to 60 percent of the vote, its pointman on the elections, Andrei Vorobyov, said in remarks posted on the party's web site Friday.
Vorobyov could not be reached Friday for a comment on the opinion polls. Other United Russia officials directed inquiries to him. United Russia officials have portrayed the elections as a referendum on support for Putin and his policies. At a meeting of party leaders Wednesday, they sat under a banner reading, "Putin's Triumph Is Russia's Triumph!" -- an evident departure from the party's initial election motto, "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Triumph." United Russia calls its campaign platform -- a digest of major Putin speeches -- Putin's Plan.
Putin remains by far the country's most popular politician, with 57 percent of those polled in early November saying they trusted him, VTsIOM said. [LR That means 43% of Russians DON'T trust Putin].
Voters' initial excitement that Putin would be so closely associated with United Russia has waned, and they are once again viewing it as a party of faceless bureaucrats, said a spokesman for A Just Russia, a pro-Kremlin party. "Also, United Russia is showing itself to be the least creative party in the ongoing campaign, with slogans and a political style reminiscent of Soviet times," said the spokesman, Alexander Morozov. United Russia is the only one of the 11 parties participating in the elections to refuse to take part in televised debates, which started last week. The other parties have been using the debates to gently criticize United Russia and the government, rather than argue with one another. But Alexei Mukhin, a political analyst with the Center for Political Information, said the failure of the government to curb the latest hike in food prices had hurt United Russia more than its campaign tactics. Voters are dissatisfied with both United Russia and the Duma campaign overall, as indicated by the fact that other parties' ratings failed to increase at United Russia's expense, said Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor who heads the Institute of National Strategy. In both polls, A Just Russia scored less than the 7 percent needed to clear the threshold to win seats in the Duma. Its popularity has dived since Putin joined United Russia's ticket.
The Communist Party was the only party other than United Russia to get more than 7 percent. [LR: So much for the idea that the people of Russia have every given democracy anything like a fair chance. Now, just as under Yeltsin, the only parties they've given real support to are the Kremlin's and the Communists. That's barbarism, pure and simple.]