The race for the Duma

Print edition : September 26, 2003

As the run-up to the December 7 elections to the Russian Parliament begins, the Left bloc seems to have an edge over the Right and Centrist parties.

in Moscow

THE impending elections to the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament, seem to be heating up the political climate in the country even as the year races towards its wintry conclusion. This is not surprising, with political trends that could have an irreversible impact on the December 7 elections already emerging. The defining aspect of the elections, for which campaigning started in the first week of September, is that it is going to be held in well-established conditions of political stability, marked by the emergence of a genuine multi-party system and simultaneous federal reform under a resurgent and strong Kremlin.

Communist supporters at a demonstration in Red Square, Moscow, to mark the 50th death anniversary of Joseph Stalin on March 5, 2003.-EPA YURI KOCHETKOV/AFP

At the outset, three trends have emerged prominently. One is that the contest will be, as earlier, between United Russia (U.R.), the ruling centrist party, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), the most prominent of the Opposition parties. Secondly, the run-up to the elections is set to become highly convoluted because of the over-powering element of political intrigue in the working of the elite centrist and left-of-centre parties. This has led to a heightening of intra-party turf wars, which could reduce the votes they poll. Finally, it remains to be seen whether parties representing the Right, and ideological parties such as the Union of Right Forces of Russia (URF) and Yabloko, are able to make use of the opportunities at hand and overcome the 5 per cent threshold needed for representation in the Duma.

The CPRF, led by Gennady Zyuganov, is by far one of Russia's most well-organised and democratic parties today. However, the party has gone through considerable internal stress in transforming itself from a traditional Communist party of the Lenin-Stalin vintage to a more pragmatic leftist party capable of surviving in today's Russia. The party has met with considerable success and is one of the few parties in Russia with loyal and substantive followings. Traditionally, the CPRF is the most vociferous Opposition party when it comes to tackling the ruling party. A sizable chunk of the CPRF's vote base consists of pensioners and the poorer, struggling sections of society. These sections have turned to the CPRF in the hope that it will provide moderate economic stability, personal safety and social security. According to a July 26 pre-poll survey conducted by the Strategic Analysis Centre and the Voice of the People Public Opinion, the CRPF was leading the popularity charts by 7.42 points, while the U.R. scored 6.02 points, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) 4.16 points, Yabloko 3.6 points, the URF 3.22 and the People's Party 3.02 points.

Pensioners and the poorer sections of society form a sizable chunk of the vote base of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, led by Gennady Zyuganov.-IVAN SEKRETAREV/AP

However, by mid-August the picture became rather difficult for the Communists, following a split effected in the CPRF by the popular left-leaning economist and member of the CPRF in the State Duma, Sergei Glazyev. Glazyev announced the formation of a new bloc called the "Wide People's Patriotic Coalition", which boasts the involvement of 15 different political groupings. This bloc is still evolving, but the rupture in the Communist ranks is undeniable. By this move, observers say, the Kremlin has created a second Left column, which will split the votes of the CPRF and strengthen the ruling party. Interestingly, Glazyev's new bloc has offered the second position in the party to Dmitry Rogozin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin and a former member of the centrist People's Deputy Group. Observers are of the opinion that the new bloc will also cut into the vote base of centrist parties such as the U.R. and the People's Party. Yet, without doubt, it is the CPRF that has been left more vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the three pro-Kremlin parties, the U.R., the People's Party and the Russian Party of Life, are frantically trying to prepare the ground to capture a majority in the Duma. Since the 1990s, the ruling establishment has worked to create dominant left-of-centre and right-of-centre parties. This successful centrist model has resulted in the mushrooming of many marginal parties. Over 30 parties are participating in this round of elections, and many of these follow the centrist model. Further, these parties are weak on ideology and have largely emerged as interest groups.

President Vladimir Putin. The results of the Duma elections are important for him as they will give an indication of how the electorate will vote in the presidential elections in March 2004.-NOZIM KALANDAROV, ASIA PLUS/AP

Among the plethora of centrist parties, there is considerable competition. For instance, the U.R., a largely bureaucratic party that supports liberal and corporate interests, is today leaning increasingly towards left-of-centre and is controlled by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who was recently appointed head of the party's higher council. Its sister party, the People's Party, led by Gennady Raikov, represents the powerful St. Petersburg faction within the Kremlin and also follows a left-of-centre programme. Yet, observers say that there are some very distinctive differences between the two parties. While the U.R. desires stability, strong statehood and a Great Russia achieved without an upheaval, the People's Party feels that an upheaval is only a small price to pay for a Great Russia and eventual stability. Thus, currently, there is cut-throat competition between centrist elements, which want to safeguard their individual turfs and interests in the Duma. Although Kremlin pundits calculate that the People's Party will cut into the CPRF's votes and not those of the U.R., this rivalry could result in the centrist vote getting split up.

The emerging rivalry among the centrist parties to increase their respective vote shares and influence in the Duma was partly responsible for the recent Yukos crisis, wherein the authorities initiated criminal investigations into the oil-and-banking empire of Russia's wealthiest tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Frontline, August 29, 2003).

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who was recently appointed head of the higher council of United Russia, the ruling party.-AP

The most prominent grouping of rightist parties is the URF, a coalition of four like-minded parties. The URF forcefully comes across as the only party capable of upholding conservative rightist values in the true Western sense of the word. It is definitely a party to watch in the elections. The party draws its votes from among young Russians who look up to the Rightist parties to provide the correct mix of opportunities and values for modern Russia. However, the Union's move to include a highly ideological party like Yabloko into its fold failed. Currently, the two are engaged in a major information war involving litigation. Experts say that an alliance with Yabloko was necessary for the URF to cross the mandatory 5 per cent threshold in the Duma. Right now, the fortunes of the Right front remain uncertain. Anatoli Chubais, a prominent oligarch and statist, holds a high-level position in the URF. Given Chubais' close relationship with the Kremlin, this could be a move by the latter to secure the Right front.

Political parties are vying for media coverage as the campaign hots up. In a mutant, hydra-headed growth, several combinations and permutations of alliances and unions are in the offing, or under negotiation, with different interest groups reaching out to each other. The game is closely monitored by the Kremlin, which has gone out of its way to secure and propagate its new-found concept of `managed democracy'. Will the Kremlin succeed in `managing' or will it be surprised as it was in 1995 when the Communists secured a majority in the Duma? The results of the Duma elections are critical for President Putin as they will give an indication of how the electorate will vote in the Presidential elections in March 2004. The fall and winter in Moscow no doubt promise to be politically invigorating.

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