POLITICAL PARTIES AND THE MEDIA IN THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN: SEPTEMBER 7 IS D-DAY

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Sometime this week – presumably on September 7 – the president is expected to issue the decree launching the parliamentary election campaign.

According to the new rules, from that moment on, advertising for political parties will be banned in the media. The advertising ban will only be lifted on November 7, when the signatures of voters in support of parties will have been collected, handed in and verified. In other words, when the final list of Duma candidates is formed. After that, explains Novye Izvestia, the election campaign will begin and continue until December 5. December 6 has been assigned for voters to make their decisions. Voting day is December 7.

Meanwhile, as the press has repeatedly noted before, illegal election-related battles have been underway for a long time already. Having no regulating force, these have become a real mix of a fight.

Noteworthy in this connection is a recent scandal between Yabloko and the Union of the Right Forces (URF), which had been brewing for a few months and broke out in August after URF campaign manager Alfred Kokh gave an interview to the Interfax news agency. “A considerable part of the electorate of the URF and Yabloko overlap, which is an open secret. Therefore, we intend to engage in some fairly tough polemics with Yabloko to win over the electorate… The URF has allocated both human and financial resources for that purpose,” Kokh said (the Moskovskiye Novosti weekly published his statement). To all appearances, these resources were used with maximum efficiency.

Commenting on Kokh’s statements, Moskovskiye Novosti says: “If there was a competition for the amount of dirty campaign tactics used against any party, Yabloko would be the undisputed winner.”

Indeed, as far back as this spring, many central and regional newspapers reported that Mayor Cherepkov of Vladivostok had previously implemented the public utilities reform plan Yabloko is proposing – and as a result, the city “was first sunk in sewage, then suffered heating shortages in winter.”

However, refutations followed these articles (the city of Vladivostok had heating shortages in 2000, before Cherepkov was mayor; and, in general, Yabloko’s proposals concerning exemption from taxes for private companies capable of servicing housing bear no relation to the policy of the Vladivostok authorities).

Later on, Yabloko was accused many times of “populism” (the party’s proposals related to installation of water and heat counters, protection of students of Moscow State Linguistic University, etc.). Yabloko members denied all accusations, but without vehemence, possibly due to the complete absurdity of those accusations.

After that a group of followers of Yabloko without Yavlinsky suddenly surfaced in Moscow and held its press conference. Yavlinsky incriminated in “toying with the left.”

The fact that followers of Ya without Ya had no relation to Yabloko and preferred picketing and press conferences to communication with representatives of the party they were supposedly supporting suggests an idea of a “trivially paid provocation,” writes Moskovskiye Novosti.

In opinion of MN, when this “initiative from the bottom” was operatively highlighted “in another series of items as alike as twins,” it became clear that initiative had been ordered.

In this connection, Sergei Mitrokhin, head of Yabloko’s election campaign publicly promised to “bring an action after September 7,” when the electoral legislation would be officially in force. “As it turned out, before the start of an official election campaign the law imposes no interdiction on use of any unethical tricks – it is possible to be throwing mud at one’s rivals being not afraid of punishment,” a spokesperson for Yabloko noted sadly.

In the meantime, a quarrel in the democratic camp gave the observers another plea to emphasize the “generic distinctions” between the URF and Yabloko. Dmitry Oreshkin, director of the Merkator group is writing in MN: “The former are ready to sacrifice their image to achieve practical goals, while the latter are conversely immolate their practical goals to retain the irreproachable reputation.”

However, Yabloko’s response hasn’t brought any result so far: even Yabloko’s refusal from participation in the Elections-2003 forum produced no outstanding impression.

Alexei Makarkin, head of the analytical section with the Center for Political Technologies noted for Novye Izvestia in relation to the debate between Yabloko member Sergei Mitrokhin and Boris Nadezhdin, senior deputy chairman of the URF faction: “Yavlinsky’s party is more likely to be a party of experts. They could spend 15 minutes giving figures for issues, which URF members can close within three minutes. The URF is more likely to be a party of politicians.”

Novye Izvestia made a more straightforward statement to the topic of “psychological incompatibility” of both parties. In opinion of the newspaper, the debating between Nadezhdin and Mitrokhin resemble a discussion between Grigory Yavlinsky and Anatoly Chubais, which occurred four years ago: “Unwilling to get to the point, the URF has been counteracting any attempts of a constructive dialog with friendly and indulgent shoulder-slapping. At the same time, showing their steady incompetence to act on the spot, Yabloko members have been reiterating their mistakes and continue “serious dialog,” which looks very awkward and ridiculous sometimes,” writes Novye Izvestia.

This statement of a newspaper could be taken as a brilliant example of what should disappear from the media coverage following September 7. Sergei Bolshakov, a member of the central Electoral Commission explained for Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the new law prohibits the journalists to produce any comments related to election activities. The reports must have only information and contain no analytics; otherwise a newspaper may face serious troubles.

According to Bolshakov, a special body – “a group monitoring law obedience in the sphere of propaganda and media coverage for the elections” is being created under the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). Since determining the distinction between information and analytics is not always is not always easy – if willing any candidate may find a plea to get offended by a newspaper – the CEC has been taking pains to bring the journalists to reason: “A series of methodological manuals and comments for the law have been issued. We have lately issued another manual entitled Media and Elections, Questions and Answers.” A tutorial on the election process and the electoral legislation has been prepared. A distant school will be opened for journalists so that they could learn fundamentals of the electoral legislation.

Bolshakov thinks the new rules are serviceable: “To my mind, the law has been offering a clear-cut legal construction, which enables observing the principle of equality of the candidates, which is apparently very hard.”

Generally speaking, the time of pre-election “free flight полета” for the press is about to end.

On the other hand, after everything what the public has seen already, following intricate PR-actions of United Russia, colorful statements of leaders of the People’s Party, a public quarrel of the right and reproachful appeals of the left (Zyuganov) and the new left (Glaziev) an opportunity everything could be started anew is hardly likely.

The CEC seems to be cunning in this matter. Asked about legality of the television being dominated by the United Russia party and an array of bulletins boards from various parties in the streets of the Russian cities (will they be removed on September 7?), Bolshakov said without batting an eyelid: “Of course, in the political sense the campaigning has been underway for a while. From the legal point of view it’ll start on the day the corresponding president’s decree is published with Rossiiskaya Gazeta. You are free to write everything you want about it, but the election campaign hasn’t yet actually started.”

The events happening now the CEC considers to be nothing more but “routine activities of political parties.”

In the meantime, resorting to the freedom they still have, analysts of various editions are hurrying with presenting their assessments of the positioning on the political scene and, most often, find it very unattractive for the electorate.

“Penal and revelatory bombast, rather than nonsense has been the characteristic feature of the developing election campaign,” writes Novoye Vremya magazine.

By a tradition, the ruling party has yet staked on intimidation of philistines. As is supposed, an average Russian citizen “encircled by functionaries-embezzlers, bandits-businessmen, liars-politicians and scroungers-policemen has been continuously trembling.” The hope that the police would be able to protect an average citizen has held out until lately, but has finally collapsed: as it turned out, “the police – are the bandits, right up to generals. And you’ll find protection in no place other than United Russia.”

At the same time, used with proper efficiency are all methods of “witch-hunting:” the “Gothic” terminology (“werewolves”), the striking heaps of diamonds and banknotes, as well as more striking ranks of the guilty.”

Everything seems to be calculated correctly, notes Novoye Vremya, but this structure doesn’t work. “Nobody doubts that the arrested people are criminals,” although the people have been declared criminals before the investigation is ended and before a trial takes place. However, nobody believes in the purgative effect of the “Operation Werewolves in Uniform” case and the accompanying stir: opinion poll results show that the majority of citizens regard this case as a trivial pre-election publicity stunt.

This skeptical attitude is explainable: according to Novoe Vremya, ordinary Russians do not doubt the “monstrous crime” in the Interior Ministry sphere. Besides, to all appearances, previous propagandist campaigns have already exhausted the limit in political technologies and fantastic and incongruous deceit.

As a result, people do not believe anything. At the same time, as Novoe Vremya concludes, people are tired of being afraid. It is clear that it will not be that easy to conduct an election campaign in such conditions. The weekly Moskovskie Novosti notes that the feeling of vital importance of the upcoming elections has disappeared: it has been replaced by annoyance and tiredness. The natural reaction of the people is described by the weekly as follows: “Let them go to hell with their elections!” Moskovskie Novosti calls this reaction quite rational because it registers changes of political culture: “Here are problems of the government, and there are my own problems, and there is almost nothing in common between them.”

In any case, according to Dmitry Oreshkin, the author of an article in Moskovskie Novosti, the model of “mobilization-alternative voting” that has been successfully used for the past few years does not work today.

Formerly the slogan “For all the variety of choice there is no other alternative!” was popular, but today it sounds childish. It is hardly likely that someone will dare to use the “Either you are for Yeltsin or ‘God forbid!'” scheme today.

Today everything looks much more serious and balanced: “Parties have developed into interest groups out of ideological entities. And today they are facing a new problem: either to continue crying about eternal and inaccessible values or to honestly disclose their rational motives.”

Meanwhile, there are some problems surrounding disclosure of motivation: “there are very few eternal values, while parties are numerous.” So parties have to convincingly explain to voters why they are better than their rivals.

Therefore, as Moskovskie Novosti says, the most serious rivalry is observed today between parties located in one and the same sector of the political arena. For instance, United Russia, the party of well-to-do officials merged with business, cannot share slogans of patriotism and construction of a strong state with People’s Party, which it called “the party of the military who were late for privatization.”

Meanwhile, United Russia is quite satisfied with its life and supports stability, while People’s Party insists on the necessity of changes and does not consider some radical steps an excessive payment for the future welfare.

Therefore, as the author believes, if these two corporations fail to agree in the near future, “the are likely to devour one another rather than the Kremlin’s opponents.”

A similar pair rivalry is also observed on the left flank. Since leftist voters have become more rational too, they are more interested in solutions to social problems rather than Marxist-Leninist ideology. In accordance with requirements of the time, even the Communist Party (CPRF) and its leader have had to become more rational. Simultaneously, the Glaziev-Rogozin tandem has appeared on the left flank, and its concept is more adequate to demands of today’s voters. This tandem may become a serious rival of the CPRF in the upcoming elections.

In Oreshkin’s opinion, the democrats’ conflict will be resolved in quite a natural way. He has said in this connection, “The URF will be apparently left alone on the right flank. In all likelihood, it will continue to drift rightward, toward the Western sense of the word ‘right’. And Yabloko is gradually acquiring the shape of a leftist-liberal party of the university intelligentsia type: there are rather many such parties in European parliaments.”

The author concludes that the “era of rational politics” has started in Russia, and so “party brands” are undergoing the “period of molting and migration” today.

Rationalization of the approach to political problems may be also proven by the fact that, according to the journal Kompaniya, at least a hundred representatives of business, chiefly owners of large and medium-size companies, are ready to fight for seats in the parliament.

The journal states that this year it will be considerably more difficult for them to get into the Duma: expenses on election campaign are considerably increasing. Even the Central Election Commission (CEC) has raised the upper limit of the election fund in majority districts by 3.5 times, up to $200,000.

However, competent people assert that the only person who can win in an electoral district for this money is the one who has his own regional newspaper, TV channel, and an enterprise, at which his voters are working. The actual starting price of an election campaign is at least $500,000, and a place on a party list will cost at least $1.5 million.

It is easy to calculate that the market is political consultants and propagandists on the eve of elections is worth at least $100 million.

However, the end justifies the means. As is known, a deputy’s mandate has long been considered by businessmen as a “protection certificate” against “crackdowns” of local authorities: a parliamentary inquiry has long been viewed as a means of protection against administrative arbitrariness.

Besides, the mandate gives a deputy personal immunity. Konstantin Golovshchinsky, expert of the INDEM think-tank, has explained to Kompaniya that this immunity enables deputies “run businesses in super-profitable criminal spheres”.

At the same time, many lawful businessmen have already discovered that their business has reached its upper limit at the regional level, and there are no sufficient links to get to the federal level. In this case they have to pin their hopes on the mandate.

Meanwhile, as Kompaniya notes, businessmen do not like to talk about money explaining their coming to politics. Usually they mention non-economic reasons or interests of the whole business community.

The journal quotes Sergei Shirokov, formerly head of the group of construction companies Elias: “Business remains ‘business only’ only until a certain stage of its development: public-political element appears in it sooner or later. First the businessman thinks about how to set up assets, then about how to protect them, and finally he realizes that it is necessary to defend the very way of life.”

These words have much in common with the latest announcements of YUKOS head Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In his recent interview to the Echo of Moscow radio station, he announced once again, for all his current troubles, that he does not intend to give up politics.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta has quoted him, “Corporations can’t and shouldn’t be engaged in politics and support political movements. But owners and employees of corporations can and must take part in the political life of the country as its citizens. If we don’t make decisions, someone else will make them for us.”

Looking at results of the latest opinion polls, it is easy to understand whom he meant by “someone else”. The leader is CPRF or United Russia (depending on which of the public opinion study centers, VTsIOM or FOM, has conducted the poll), and they are followed by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which is gaining strength again.

Unfading Vladimir Zhirinovsky has convincingly explained the situation to the weekly Argumenty I Fakty. He has said, “Parties should represent interests of social strata. And where are these strata in Russia? Some 90% of Russians are poor and 3% are extremely rich. Thus, no wonder that the Communists get most of the vote.” As for the LDPR, it is taking advantage of its chance. Zhirinovsky has said about it, “The Communists dislike us because we are playing on their field, and democrats dislike us because we are doing it better. At the same time, we know that people don’t like the right and centrists very much, and this helps us.”

Practically all observers agree that people are not much interested in activities of political parties. Some explain this fact by amorphousness and marginality of Russian votersели. Others, like Expert observer Alexander Privalov, on the contrary, think that parties and the election campaign in general “are bypassing the most urgent national issues”; hence the demonstrative indifference of the electorate.

Privalov says, “The actual problem has been the urgent necessity of an economic breakthrough. However, over the past few months since the president’s address to the Federal Assembly, in which the task of doubling the GDP was set, not a single party has played a record on this topic on its gramophone.” Instead, “the URF led by Chubais are indefatigably harping on horrors of the communist alternative to liberal reforms, while the Communists led by Zyuganov are repeating their statements about the anti-people nature of the governing regime.” Both are hackneyed slogans allegedly displaying inadequacy of participants of the pre-election battles to the new situation. But if the idea of transition from sublime ideological meditations to practical program concepts has appeared in the Russian society, there is a hope that it will be realized sooner or later. As media assure, the Russian voter has seriously grown up for the past few years. Consequently, parties will have to grow up together with him.

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