In three months, parties, and only parties, will divide up the seats in the State Duma.
Photo: Ilya Pitalev
Duma Election Campaign Begins
The first of two federal election campaigns began yesterday after Rossiiskaya gazeta newspaper Russian President Vladimir Putin's order calling elections to the State Duma. The answer to the main question is known in advance. The United Russia Party will certainly win more than half the seats in the lower house. There are three moments of real suspense here, however, that will play a parts in the outcome of the presidential election next year, the configuration of the party system and the perspectives of the democratic movement.
The first intrigue is whether or not the potential successors to Putin (or even one of them) will top the election lists of the two parties in power, United Russia and Just Russia. This question has been under discussion for exactly a year already, since an Internet publication in St. Petersburg reported that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov, who was minister of defense as well at the time, would head the party being founded through the merger of Rodina, the Pensioners' Party and the Party of Life (it was later named Just Russia).
By that time, United Russia had practically claimed another potential successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, for itself, and it was publishing his key speeches on its official website. The arrangement looked logical: the liberal lawyer Medvedev heading the right-center United Russia and the pro-state, pro-police Ivanov heading the left-center Just Russia.
The layout began to shift this summer, however. Ivanov, who surpassed the Medvedev in the presidential ratings for the first time and was continuing to pull ahead of him, was being more and more often mentioned in connection with United Russia. That looked logical as well. If United Russia was going to associate itself with one of the possible successors, it could only be with the one who was going to win.
Sociologists came to the same conclusion. The Levada Center conducted a special survey in July to find out how Russians felt about Ivanov heading the party list for United Russia in the Duma elections, and about Medvedev heading Just Russia. Forty-four percent of respondents favored the Ivanov-United Russia pairing, with 14 percent opposed, and 36 percent favored Medvedev-Just Russia, with 17 percent opposed.
The combination they appear in will have more influence on the upcoming presidential elections that on the Duma elections. Both parties' voters will be oriented not toward specific persons, but toward the leadership as a whole. They will vote for the party in power regardless of who leads it, whether it is the speaker of the Duma, a first deputy prime minister or just some mayor. But for either of the successors the top spot on the party list will mean the transition from potential candidate to real contender for the Kremlin.
That, though, is exactly why the participation of the two first deputy prime ministers seems unlikely. The party lists have to be formed by the beginning of October, which would deprive Putin of another three or four months to make up his mind. If well-informed Kremlin sources are to be believed, the president has not made his choice yet. So he is unlikely to decided in the course of the next month.
The second intrigue is the configuration of the party system that will arise from the elections.
There is no doubt that the Kremlin's long nurturing of a two-party system has come to fruition, even if it has yet to reach it final form (Russia is still far from the Anglo-American system of alternating parties). That, in the final analysis, was why Kremlin political technologists made the Duma elections based exclusively on party lists and reduced the number of parties, lightening the ballast that made the entire party system less manageable.
From the point of view of the specific arithmetic for filling in the two-party system, there is room left for variation. Of course, the minimum program remains to guarantee that pro-Kremlin parties receive a total of two-thirds of the votes in the lower house. That is the qualified majority, which can change the Constitution and pass constitutional laws. But power party No. 2 Just Russia is not the only one that can help United Russia attract the votes it lacks for that (the latest survey by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion shows that United Russia may receive 57 percent of seats in the Duma). The LDPR is always prepared to back important Kremlin initiatives. And the need for a qualified majority arises rather rarely.
On December 2, Just Russia may receive 20 percent of the vote, which will allow the Kremlin to push through any bill without the help of the LDPR. Ten percent or 8 percent will allow for the same thing, if Zhirinovsky's people are willing to take up the slack. The only condition that has to be observed no matter what is that Just Russia come in second. A two-party system in which the second party takes third or fourth place in parliamentary elections looks unconvincing. Therefore, in spite of the comeback they have been making lately, and their predictions of receiving 18-26 percent of the vote, the communists are going to have to settle for third place.
The third unanswered question in the campaigning is whether the democratic parties will make it into the new Duma. More accurately, it is whether a democratic party will be part of the next Duma.
Democratic old-timers Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces have done much recently to convince those close to the president that they are prepared to play by their rules. They were careful not to associate with the extra-systemic Other Russia movement. They expelled those who were too closely tied to that organization, and tries not to irritate the Kremlin in general. That is explanation Kommersant sources gave for the Union of Right Forces' unwillingness to include Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov in the top three places on the party list. He is quite popular with democratic voters, but he annoys presidential advisors.
But neither party has obtained the hoped for results. Regular appearances on national television channels could be considered a sign of the goodwill of those at the top. But the democrats are as rare there as they always were. Surveys predict that the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko will take 1-3 percent of the votes. Without some shoring up, they will never overcome the seven-percent barrier.
The fate of the democratic movement as a whole depends on the showing the “old-timers” make in this year's Duma elections. A second defeat in a row will most likely turn the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko into a marginal party that cannot claim any serious role in politics. Along with the Right Forces and Yabloko, an entire era come to an end, the era of petitions signed by several million Russians against the Chechen war, of the Young Reformers and of impeachment votes in the Duma. It probably does not have to be said that none of those events are imaginable in Putin's Russia of triumphant “sovereign democracy.”
Of course, liberal voter will remain in Russia after the failure of the democratic old-timers in December. But completely different parties will declare themselves its representative – those whose leadership includes the deputy head of the presidential executive staff.
All the Article in Russian as of Sep. 03, 2007