Russia voted for instability!

Russia voted for instability!

Elections for the 450-seat Russian State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, were held Dec. 4, 2011.

United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, won only 49.5 percent of the popular vote, down from 64 percent in the 2007 elections. United Russia lost its absolute majority necessary to change the Russian constitution singlehandedly.

They previously did this to enable the Putin-Medvedev job-swap. Looking at election results, is it fair to say that Russia voted for instability this time?

 I am worried about these results, despite the anti-Putin protests. Now I love democracy just as much as the next academic, but one also has to consider the way these countries operate. Maybe 49.5 percent of the vote would work well for the average European government, but it might mean a less stable economic future a bit farther East. So why did this happen now? It’s the economy.

I was in Istanbul for a few days recently and heard a great deal about the importance of stability and sustainability. This was about Turkey, not Russia, and it was Prime Minister Erdoğan’s surgery that made people think. That, perhaps, is the reason I am preoccupied with this weird concept of stability lately. Everybody uses the word “stability,” but what they are really talking about is the economy.

This same feeling runs through Turkey, Russia and Egypt. People can make revolutions, but once all the commotion is over they get hungry. So are there any lessons the people of the Nile can learn from the decades of economic transformation in the frost-bound North? There might be a few.

Two surveys strike me as particularly relevant here: one from Pew Research on Russia and one from Chatney Research on Egypt, both American entities. The surveys present significant similarities. The first is that in both Russia and Egypt, people prefer a strong economy over democracy. That bodes ill for their democracy-loving cousins in Turkey. But to be clear, that’s 73 to 21 percent of Russians in favor of a strong economy against democracy.

When asked whether they favor a strong leader to democratic government, 57 percent of Russians prefer a strong leader whereas 32 percent prefer democratic government. Good for competitive authoritarianism, as termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way in “elections without democracy.” So what’s the message of Russian electorate? If you cannot deliver economic prosperity, you have to pay the price. The full consequences will likely come about in the Russian presidential elections in 2012.

The survey in Egypt, on the other hand, indicates that people are fed up with Tahrir Square demonstrations. Fifty-three percent see demonstrations as unnecessary disruptions, while 35 percent support them. Why is that so? Respondents prefer their government to stay focused on the economy. A whopping 82 percent of Egyptians say their personal income level and safety are worse than it was under Mubarak. I guess you just can’t storm Bastille every day.

The second similarity is the growing importance of economic issues in Russian and Egyptian ballot boxes. Economic concerns are the main problem for 62 percent of the population in Egypt. Fifty percent of the respondents have a positive outlook for Egypt, down from 70 percent six months ago. About 60 percent of Russians are dissatisfied with their current living conditions, and 65 percent find the current economic situation lacking.

Russia was the first to transform, and Soviet nondemocratic elections gave way to ones scarcely better. These recent surveys indicate Egypt has the same tendency. But perhaps the recent elections mark another revolution in Russia, a democratic one this time. After two decades of the same elite ruling the country, people might be out to find administrators who can deliver on their promises.