On being appointed Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin in 1999, Vladimir Putin warned the then President that he did not like elections and did not know how to run them.
The recent parliamentary elections are likely to have confirmed Putin's initial suspicions. United Russia, the 'Party of Power' chaired by Vladimir Putin, suffered an unprecedented electoral setback on 4 December. The party received just under 50% of the vote, compared to 64% in 2007. This is despite a controlled media environment, the widespread use of 'administrative resources' to raise turnout, and numerous allegations of electoral fraud in United Russia's favour. The true figure for United Russia's support – if such a notion is at all meaningful in the absence of real political competition – could be 15-20% lower. United Russia claimed to be celebrating victory, but for many the result has been interpreted as an ignominious failure.
The results pose a number of challenges for the ruling elite. The most pressing concern is next year's Presidential Election, when Vladimir Putin is due to return to the Kremlin after four years as Prime Minister. Democracy in Russia is a charade, but high polling ratings are still vital for the Presidency to retain its legitimacy. As the latter part of the Yeltsin era showed, personalised power cannot function when the key personality loses credibility. There have been indications in recent months that Putin's popularity is in decline; in November he was booed by the crowd at a martial arts contest which was broadcast live on television. The anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny called it the end of an era.
The elite's instinct will be to reach for further populist measures in order to mobilise support for Putin. However, the government is already facing problems balancing the budget for 2012 and it can ill-afford further handouts. Disputes within the elite over the budget even led to the recent dismissal of Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin for criticizing excessive government spending on defence. At the heart of the problem is the 'Putin narrative' of rising prosperity, domestic stability and external strength which is becoming increasingly threadbare. In 2008, Medvedev briefly rejuvenated the political discourse with a call to combat corruption, reform the economy and modernise Russia. Yet, the hopes this temporally raised have been largely unrealised, and the population has grown increasingly disenchanted.
There is a danger of over-stating the implications of this election result. In formal terms, little has changed. The Duma has become slightly more pluralistic but remains weak as an institution. One of the fundamental problems of Russia's super-presidential system is that parliament does not directly form the government or appoint the Prime Minister. Opposition parties were long ago co-opted into the informal networks which drive much of Russia's politics.
The elections nevertheless represent a major challenge to a political project which is only configured for success. United Russia has no ideology beyond support for the Presidential course, and no rationale beyond retaining power. If the elite begin to doubt the party can continue to deliver the latter, there could be a sudden surge for the exits.