The Next Stop is the Duma

Also published on Johnson’s Russia List (2007-#66, March 19, 2007) and Russia Profile (http://www.russiaprofile.org/cdi/2007/3/19/5410.wbp)

As the March 11 regional elections have shown, there is a part of Russia’s political life that makes it look increasingly “westernized”: the growing role of money.  The combined campaign funds of all 14 political parties have totaled 63 million dollars.  This is twice as much as the cost of all regional elections in 2006 and about the same (64 million) that was spent for the whole 2003 Duma election campaign.  There is no doubt that the “price” of this year Duma election will reach and, perhaps, even exceed 150 million dollars. 

The examination of how the money was distributed among individual parties helps dispel the perpetual myth that the “opposition” in Russia has problem with raising funds.  The two largest parties – United Russia and Just Russia – have collected 25 million and 17 million dollars, respectively.  However, finishing third was the “liberal” Union of Right Forces (SPS).  Much pitied in the Western media, SPS has amassed a war chest of nine million dollars, almost as much as the rest of 11 parties (both “opposition” and “pro-Kremlin”) combined.

Rather than having trouble with raising money, SPS struggled to convert it into votes.  For each percent of the party list vote cast for it (almost 7% in total), SPS has spent 1.3 million dollars.  Compare this to the Communists, who have “invested” only 60 thousand dollars in each of their 16%.         

The elections have highlighted one more feature of the political process that is hardly unique for Russia: the growing power of incumbency.  Four parties represented in the current Duma – United Russia, Just Russia, Liberal Democrats, and the Communists – all have come up with strong performances.  United Russia has won seats in all 14 regional parliaments, Just Russia and the Communists in 13, and Liberal Democrats in 11.  In only seven parliaments will non-Duma parties be present, and their presence will be limited to but a handful of deputy seats.

The incumbent parties have fully enjoyed all the benefits that the new law on political parties has given to them, including exemption from registration.  The rest of the contestants were hit with a hammer of the often draconian regulations that crashed electoral hopes of “opposition” Yabloko and “pro-Kremlin” Agrarian and Democratic parties alike.      

To the extent the March 11 elections could serve as a dress rehearsal of the coming Duma election, it is completely clear that all four incumbent parties will preserve their presence in the fifth Duma.

The question whether SPS can join the club has no easy answer, although some pundits have already predicted this to happen.  The SPS electoral success in the recent months is due, to a large extent, to the energy and charisma of its young leader, Nikita Belykh, a true antipode to narcistic and perennially whining Grigory Yavlinsky of Yabloko.  But the SPS’ impressive performance on March 11 did not come as a result of the attractive articulation of its liberal agenda.  Quite to the contrary, SPS candidates campaigned on promises of higher salaries and pensions, much to the dismay of their competitors on the left.  It remains to be seen whether in the long run, SPS will be able to attract enough “left” votes while keeping the core of its “right” supporters. 

The discussion of the electoral performance of Just Russia, its first as a brand-new party, has predictably fallen into the classic trap of the half-full/half-empty glass dilemma.  Just Russia’s supporters (and United Russia’s critics) refer to the sensational win in Stavropol.  Just Russia’s critics (and United Russia’s supporters) point out that by the combined vote, Just Russia has failed to surpass even the Communists.

In order to see Just Russia’s results in proper context, one has to understand why this party was created in the first place.  Just Russia is not a Kremlin project aimed at siphoning votes from the Communists, nor is it an attempt by the Kremlin to deceive the “West” by creating a semblance of the two-party system.  Instead, the formation of Just Russia is a reflection of complex processes taking place inside its “big brother”, United Russia.

United Russia was created in 2001 as a typical “Garden Ring” party.  However, over the past few years, it has established a solid power base in the regions.  Now, it is time to pay back to the local elites as the latter demand their share of representation in the Duma. To accommodate these new people, United Russia needs to re-shuffle its Duma roster.  Rumors have it that no more than 20 percent of current United Russia’s Duma deputies will be given slots on the party lists for the next election.

Naturally, deputies belonging to the United Russia Duma faction who are not members of the United Russia party – a very important distinction often missed – will be the first to go.  This is what was supposed to happen, for example, to Gennady Gudkov and his People’s Party.  Not surprisingly, Gudkov has recently joined Just Russia.  He will undoubtedly be followed by others who cannot make it to the Duma through United Russia and therefore need a new vehicle.  The true goal of creating Just Russia was to give regional elites a choice and a new tool to be represented at the federal level.

The real question about Just Russia’s performance on March 11 was therefore not whether it could beat the Communists, mush less United Russia, but, rather, whether it had a workable voting machine, could raise money, and build support in the regions.  The answer to this question is positive. 

From this perspective, it is difficult to overestimate the symbolic significance of Just Russia’s victory in Stavropol.  Regional elites there and elsewhere must have realized that, by “letting” Just Russia beat United Russia even in a single election, the Kremlin is sending them a clear message: yes, now you can. 

It is this apparent loss of the undivided Kremlin love that seems to trouble the United Russia leadership the most.  They are painfully aware of just how much United Russia’s popularity depends on the perception of it being the party “of Putin.”  Even a vague sign of Putin’s support for Just Russia (by appearing, for instance, on TV together with Mironov a few days before the election) may well cost United Russia a couple of percentage points of the vote,  which might be enough to deprive it of even a simple majority in the next Duma.

In addition to being a dress rehearsal for the Duma election, the March 11 regional elections were also a whistle that signaled that the heavy train of the Duma electoral campaign was leaving the station.  As they warn you in the Russian subway: the doors are being closed; the next stop is the Duma.   

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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