Putin's local election losses are a sign of his party's worsening reputation

9 September 2019, 16:46 | Updated: 9 September 2019, 18:22

It will come as no surprise that the Kremlin should be putting the most positive of spins on what, in Moscow at least, was a poor electoral outcome for the ruling party.

"Very, very successful for United Russia, on the whole", the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this morning, commenting on the range of local and regional elections held across every part of Russia on Sunday.

On the whole indeed.

In Moscow, to be fair, United Russia still won just over half the vote.

Which is astonishing if you consider the fact that it wasn't even on the ballot paper.

The ruling party association had clearly been deemed too toxic by someone somewhere in the mayor's office for its candidates to run as anything other than independents.

But that hasn't stopped United Russia from declaring a majority on the city council.

Yesterday's "independents", today's ruling party nominees - same difference, so goes the party logic.

United Russia though lost a good chunk of its seats.

These elections, usually barely noticed in Moscow, prompted the largest wave of public protest since 2012 after the mayor's office barred dozens of liberal opposition candidates from running.

In response Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who the Russian president famously never mentions by name, launched a smart-voting campaign directing voters to cast their ballots along the lines of "anyone but United Russia".

And so you had the strange spectacle of cosmopolitan Muscovites who might never have dreamed of voting communist ticking that box on the ballot paper if only to avoid voting for the ruling party.

It seems to have paid off, with Russia's opposition parties winning twenty extra seats on the city council.

But it is only the city council, and even if they may now have more opportunity to scrutinise, for example, Moscow's city finances, it won't get them far.

In the end this day of voting seems to have resulted in everyone declaring themselves winners: United Russia has held on to power both on Moscow's city council and across the country more broadly (except for a punishing defeat in Khabarovsk region in the Far East); Mr Navalny's team can say their smart-voting campaign worked; and Moscow's Mayor Sergei Sobyanin can claim the most competitive of polls.

But has anything much changed? No.

Turnout in Moscow was just 21.77%.

Similar to five years ago but still tiny.

United Russia is getting an increasingly bad reputation thanks to President Putin's pension age reform last year which has sharpened focus on a squeeze in living standards.

Where that trend goes will depend on the Kremlin's economic stewardship far more than it will the liberal opposition.

President Putin is constitutionally obliged to leave office in 2024, when his second term is up.

My feeling is - if you want to read the tea leaves for 2024 in these elections, don't.