MOSCOW, Russia - Is Vladimir Putin, Russia's all-powerful prime minister, in trouble?
Anti-government protests, a rare thing indeed, have begun to draw thousands of people across the country. And on Sunday, United Russia, the party created with the sole purpose of promoting Putin's agenda, fared far worse than it hoped in regional elections, losing a key mayoral seat and its majority in half of the regions where votes were held.
"Society is tired of United Russia, tired of its dominance, and tired of the dictatorship of bureaucracy," said Alexander Kynev, a political analyst.
The public mood has perceptively shifted.
Near daily scandals, many involving corrupt police and officials, have only heightened the anger of a people languishing under an economic crisis that shows few signs of easing. Official unemployment stands at 10 percent (independent observers think it is much higher) and a New Year's rise in utility payments, as part of a slow post-Soviet desubsidization, have hit Russia's poor particularly hard.
After a smattering of anti-government protests around the country that drew, on average, about 2,000 people each, voters in some of Russia's most provincial backwaters went to the polls on Sunday to vote for mayors and representatives to local and regional legislatures, or Dumas.
Despite widespread electoral violations - independent elections monitor Golos noted cases where United Russia officials handed out vodka and money, held voting in malls where free gifts were offered, and forced university students to vote - United Russia still failed to sweep the vote with the average 60 percent rate that it has long been used to. That's the result it got in regional elections held as recently as October.
This time around, the ruling party only managed to take a majority in four of eight regional legislatures, slipping below 50 percent in Far Eastern Khabarovsk, Altai and Kurgan in Siberia and Sverdlovsk in the Urals, according to preliminary results.
Because of vote-rigging, the party's true showing was much lower, critics say.
"They can't falsify 50 percent of the votes," said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and one of the leaders of Solidarity, an umbrella opposition group. He estimated that from 10 to 15 percent of votes are forged.
"There haven't been elections in this country - in the normal, human way of understanding them - for many years. No debates or competition, with falsifications and mechanisms of fake voting," he said. "It's a farce. It's idiotic."
Sergei Mitrokhin, head of Yabloko, the only liberal party registered in Russia, agreed. Yabloko was barred, as it has been in the past, from participating in most regional votes it had applied for. Yet where it did take part, in the city of Tula outside Moscow, it managed to take more than 11 percent of the vote, winning representation.
"This was thanks to protest votes against United Russia," Mitrokhin said. "Everyone is sick of them."
The ruling party itself doesn't seem to think so, saying it received more support than ever and holding rallies around the country on Monday to celebrate its victories.
"People made their choice and showed again that they support the president, Dmitry Anatolievich Medvedev and the prime minister, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," Vyacheslav Volodin, the party's secretary general, said at a meeting at party headquarters on Sunday night, after results started coming in.
"Our support has risen 1.5, sometimes even two times higher," beamed Boris Gryzlov, another party leader and speaker of the State Duma.
United Russia's greatest loss came in Irkutsk, the picturesque city near Lake Baikal that is one of Siberia's biggest. The city has seen several anti-Putin protests in recent weeks, thanks in part to government plans to re-open a paper mill suspected of spewing waste into Baikal. On Sunday, it elected a mayor who ran on the Communist Party ticket.
Viktor Kondrashov took over 62 percent of the vote, while United Russia's candidate took 27 percent.
"We thought we could win," Gryzlov acknowledged. "[Kondrashov] is a businessman. He's not a poor man and could probably put appropriate financing into his campaign. Our candidate was from a regular milieu."
That milieu is, apparently, very popular with prisoners. The respected Vedomosti business daily reported on Monday that the United Russia candidate won a majority of votes in just one Irkutsk district - the site of the local jail.
Gryzlov also acknowledged the vote was marred by violations, but put the blame on "dirty techniques" used by opposition parties.
What happens now? That's something few opposition politicians can answer.
Putin remains popular. His latest approval rating, by the state-linked VTsIOM pollster, stands at 73 percent. But calculated using an index that compares his approval to past ratings, that number falls to 49 percent, notes VTsIOM's Olga Kamenchuk. The Levada Center, an independent pollster, puts his approval at 48 percent, according to their last poll, taken in January.
No party or politician has emerged to challenge Putin's strength. Even President Dmitry Medvedev, who during a state of the union speech in November promised to liberalize voting in regional elections, continues to fall below Putin in opinion polls.
Yet Nemtsov and Mitrokhin have promised to keep up the pressure through demonstrations. A day of protest will be held across Russia on March 20, from Moscow to the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok.
"We have learned that mass protest actions are possible if there's a united opposition," Nemtsov said. The biggest rally so far came last month in Kaliningrad, a small Western exclave that has the misfortune of being located just north of Germany, where downtrodden Russians have a clear view onto the heightened living standards of their European neighbors. Some 10,000 people turned out to protest the policies of Putin and the local governor.
"In our country, there will be another Kaliningrad," Nemtsov said.
United Russia has been visibly shaken by the increasing discontent. It has launched a loud campaign to lower utilities prices, and scrambled into action to prevent another protest in Kaliningrad.
"They don't understand how to behave or what to do," said Kynev, the political analyst. "They're in hysterics, and lying like madmen."
"They're trying to say all is well, but it's clearly not. Numbers are numbers."