As of this writing, results of yesterday’s parliamentary elections were not available. At stake are 450 seats in the State Duma, half to go to the winners in 225 election districts, half apportioned among parties receiving at least 5 percent of the national vote. But whoever the winners and losers may be, the election showed the primitive and peculiar nature of Russian democracy.

Here is a country in civil war, afflicted with terrorism, crime and corruption, with a falling life expectancy and a shrinking population. There is plenty to argue about, but there are no arguments.

Chechnya? All parties except Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko support the war. Corruption? All are against it, none has a program to confront it. Economics? The Union of Right-Wing Forces (Anatoly Chubais, Sergei Kirienko, Boris Nemtsov) wants you to be rich, the Communist Party (Gennady Zyuganov) wants you to be taken care of, and the rest–again except Yabloko–have not even a slogan.

The campaign’s keys were slander and writ. The Kremlin, because it directly or indirectly controls access to much of the country’s television, proved far more adept at slander than its opponents. In particular, relentless attacks seem to have knocked the Fatherland-All Russia coalition (Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov) from first place to third among national parties. The Kremlin also scored heavily in the courts and committee rooms, where judges and bureaucrats disqualified or impeded troublesome candidates.

Voters were swayed but not deceived. Forty-six percent of Russians polled December 10-12 by the Agency for Regional Political Research, believed the elections would be rigged; only 26 percent believed they would be fair.

The money and effort spent on the campaign nevertheless show its importance. Rigged it may be, but the election is real. The political class and the big-money boys agree: What and whom the public votes for matters. That is one more proof of the power of democracy. Political competition in Russia is crooked, scabrous and violent, but it is largely in the open and seeks a popular mandate. From this ugly process legitimate and responsive government may yet emerge, as a rose from a dungheap.