The Moscow city election: a dress rehearsal

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With the Moscow city legislature election only days away, the press has looked back to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov’s promise, made in early autumn, to ensure that this election is “clean and honest.” These assurances, actually a standard feature in any region at the start of an election campaign, were later supplemented by arguments from politicians and analysts to the effect that this Moscow election is special: it’s a dress rehearsal for the parliamentary election of 2007.

Still, the media all agree that this campaign has involved just as many controversies as any other. What’s more, as Kommersant-Vlast magazine points out, Moscow city administration officials as well as political parties have contributed to raising the “controversy level.”

Kommersant-Vlast opens its tale with the grounds for the first conflict, which emerged in March, when the Moscow city legislature approved some new electoral legislation. It included the point that all reports on signature-collectors must be notarized. This bland, boring bureaucratic procedure proved to be an important tool in bringing “order” to the campaign.

In a classic Russian mix-up, notaries only received the relevant instructions from the Justice Ministry on October 22. The deadline for submitting documents for registration expired on October 19. Thus, all would-be candidates had to lodge bonds rather than collecting signatures: 15 million rubles for parties and 1 million rubles for individual candidates in single-mandate districts. Anyone who couldn’t raise the money (that is, from the standpoint of the authorities, any “upstarts” who lacked the backing of substantial bureaucratic or corporate entities) was left out.

Then, “following a conflict within the party leadership,” the Russian Party of Pensioners was disqualified. Pollsters had given it a fair chance of scaling the 10% threshold. Party of Pensioners leaders maintain that the Moscow City Electoral Commission’s decision was made precisely because of these good prospects, and the party’s success in regional elections, where it had sometimes managed to defeat United Russia.

The next conflict arose after the Central Electoral Commission decided to use “electronic ballot-boxes” at Moscow polling stations. The Yabloko party declared that large-scale election fraud was being planned in Moscow, and demanded a manual recount at all polling stations. The Central Electoral Commission only agreed to comply with this demand in part: by doing recounts at three polling stations to be chosen randomly on election day. Yabloko was not satisfied with this, and promised to challenge the election outcome in court.

As the campaign progressed, things got worse. One of this campaign’s biggest controversies was the Moscow City Court’s decision to disqualify the Motherland (Rodina) party on the grounds of inciting ethnic hatred.

As soon as that happened, the Kommersant newspaper drew its readers’ attention to the fact that the complaint against Motherland’s controversial campaign ad, with its demand to “cleanse Moscow from garbage,” was lodged by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).

Andrei Ryabov, research board member at the Carnegie Moscow Center, explained to Kommersant that there were weighty reasons behind the LDPR’s outrage: like the Communist Party (CPRF), the LDPR found itself on the brink of failing to collect enough votes for representation in the city legislature. According to Ryabov’s information, polls showed voter support for the LDPR at 6-8%. But with Motherland out of the race, the LDPR hopes to “pick up an additional 3-4% of the vote” and form its own faction in the Moscow city legislature for the first time.

For the LDPR, this would certainly be “a good card to play in the next federal Duma elections.”

According to Kommersant, Motherland leader Dmitri Rogozin described the Moscow City Court’s ruling as “a political farce.” In his opinion, the ruling was issued under pressure from the Moscow city authorities, who fear that Motherland could be a serious rival for United Russia.

In contrast to the Carnegie Moscow Center, the Levada Center polling agency maintains that Motherland could have won at least 14% of the vote in this election, with support for United Russia at 43%. And according to a source in the Moscow city administration, secret polls show an even smaller gap between them. Thus, many of the experts approached by Kommersant say there is every reason to suspect that the Moscow City Court was following political orders.

Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Globalization Institute, told Novye Izvestia: “Rogozin is being told that he’s set his sights too high.”

In Kagarlitsky’s opinion, Rogozin has “tried to use the Moscow city election as a springboard in preparations for the presidential election of 2008. But others are now telling him that they will decide the outcome of that election.” Therefore, even though the Moscow City Court’s ruling seems justified in terms of the letter of the law, “in Russian conditions it actually represents a power-struggle between factions within the authorities.” In other words, “the issue of countering chauvinism and racism is being used to put some faction in its place.”

All the same, Independent Elections Institute director Alexander Ivanchenko told Novye Izvestia that the Moscow City Court ruling only represents a decision by the Moscow municipal authorities. Ivanchenko said that Motherland “has been punished because it’s gone all out, rather than abiding by the covert pacts made when parties do deals before a campaign begins, deciding in advance how many seats each of them will get.”

In any event, the federal authorities will have the last word: “The Supreme Court’s decision will depend on whether Motherland can reach an agreemetn.”

Andrei Metelsky, United Russia faction leader in the Moscow city legislature, commented on the situation to Kommersant as follows: “If the court issued such a ruling, there must have been good reason for it.” He added: “They ought to be smarter.”

Another prominent United Russia member, Deputy Duma Speaker Oleg Morozov, replied in a similar tone when Nezavisimaya Gazeta asked him how the party process in Russia will develop in future. He said that United Russia, which holds a constitutional majority in the present parliament, intends to win a majority in the next Duma as well. “I can only advise the other parties to keep fighting and match United Russia’s feats,” said Morozov. “They should try harder.”

In the meantime, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta observes, the upcoming Moscow election is the first important electoral event “since United Russia’s assertion of absolute monopoly at the federal elections of 2003.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta maintains that the Moscow city election will only reinforce this monopoly, since “all other political formations seem as small as mice by comparison.” Understandably enough, United Russia’s rivals disagree.

When approached by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, CPRF Central Committee Secretary Oleg Kulikov noted: “If United Russia continues to position itself as if it’s responsible for everything… and the situation deteriorates, the party’s monopoly on political power will be eroded, along with its numbers in all government bodies.”

Duma member Gennadi Gudkov even ventured to predict when the “rather feudal model” established by bureaucratic clans might go into crisis: “No later than the second half of 2008 or early 2009.”

Union of Right Forces (URF) leader Nikita Belykh essentially agrees, noting that “United Russia’s power has reached such heights that the only way it can go from here is down.”

The Argumenty i Fakty weekly says that United Russia’s new policy can be summed up as follows: “Give us more powers!” But United Russia has already received one gift from the Kremlin: as the winning party in a regional legislature election, it will have the right to suggest a regional leader candidate to the president. Argumenty i Fakty notes: “Sensing that their careers will now depend on United Russia, incumbent regional leaders started applying for party membership en masse.”

On the other hand, says Argumenty i Fakty, it isn’t clear how United Russia can hold those regional leaders accountable for their failures. All it can do is complain to the Kremlin about incompetent regional leaders – since no official is likely to be scared by the threat of expulsion from the party. Things have changed since the Soviet era.

Then again, as Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Mitrokhin told Argumenty i Fakty, matters are unlikely to go this far: “That party doesn’t fear the people’s wrath, because it now has a ‘fire-extinguisher’ full of petrodollars.”

Experts approached by the Vedomosti newspaper think likewise: in their view, United Russia’s current position owes more to energy prices than to its political strategy or tactics.

Alexei Makarkin from the Political Techniques Center told Vedomosti: “United Russia’s successful performance in 2007 depends on the oil prices situation being favorable. Changing the party’s policy program wouldn’t make any difference; after all, its policy program for the 2003 elections consisted of only one phrase: President Putin.”

That is probably why the the only real result of the party congress held by United Russia in the lead-up to the Moscow city election was a change in the colors of the party’s logo: as the Gazeta newspaper put it, “their bear turned white.”

United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov declined to explain to journalists why the party needs rebranding or who came up with the idea for it; he only noted that he considers the new logo “more interesting and dynamic.” Well, Gryzlov is in the best position to judge.

At the party congress in Krasnoyarsk, Gryzlov called yet again for an end to the intra-party debate that started six months ago. Due to the ideological differences within the party, United Russia keeps sprouting right and left wings.

At the congress, Gryzlov said: “We uphold the principle that there is no contradiction between the objectives of an efficient market economy and social development. This principle is especially important now that some people are seeking to add a platform to the party. I’d like to remind those who are overly caught up in this that the train might pull out, leaving the platform behind.”

This warning, delivered with military directness, was greeted with a standing ovation, according to the Vedomosti newspaper.

Vedomosti also reports that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was the only one who ventured to publicly criticize this approach – and even he did so outside the meeting-hall. Luzhkov said: “Debating issues is a normal process for any party that seeks to grow. If there is no debate, a party has no future.”

Luzhkov’s demonstratively democratic remark didn’t prevent United Russia from taking maximal advantage of Luzhkov’s popularity during the Moscow city election campaign.

Luzkhov is the top candidate on United Russia’s list, although he has no intention of taking up a seat in the city legislature. What’s more, as Gazeta reports, United Russia has already promised that if it wins the municipal eleciton, it will support the idea of giving Luzhkov another term in office, once his current term expires in 2007.

Curiously enough, when journalists asked whether United Russia has a back-up candidate in the event that President Putin rejects Luzhkov, Andrei Metelsky answered the question with another question: “Why should we make any awkward moves to replace a regional leader whose performance is a model of efficiency?” According to Metelsky, Luzkhov is more authoritative than ever before, among Kremlin officials and Moscow residents alike; so there can be no question of any replacement in Moscow: “Do you think President Putin has no common sense?”

Then again, as Gazeta points out, Luzkhov himself has stated repeatedly that he won’t seek re-election in 2007. But even this matter has been clarified by Vladimir Platonov, speaker of the Moscow city legislature, as follows: although Luzkhov said that he doesn’t want to run again, he never said he’d refuse if United Russia suggests him to President Putin as a candidate. So if United Russia tells Luzkhov to stay on, he’ll have to submit to party discipline.

Meanwhile, Luzhkov assured the party congress that when (there’s no point in saying “if”) United Russia wins the Moscow city election, the municipal government will be formed on a party basis. As Luzkhov put it, “the political instructions of the party branch will be the guideline for action.”

This idea of the winning party forming the government (not only in Moscow, but the federal government as well) has been an obsession for United Russia for some time – ever since Deputy Duma Speaker Oleg Morozov submitted a bill to that effect. Argumenty i Fakty comments: “The public is being told that giving the party more powers will enable it to be accountable to the people, and to hold its high-ranking members accountable for the government’s performance.”

But some analysts say that United Russia’s existing powers are quite sufficient to perform these functions.

What’s more, the absence of a proper, influential opposition makes oversight impossible for the actions of United Russia and its members who hold high office. Georgy Satarov, head of the InDem Foundation, told Argumenty i Fakty: “It’s ridiculous to compare United Russia to ruling parties in Europe, which form governments and are held accountable for them.”

Argumenty i Fakty notes that in effect, the Kremlin is implementing its own version of the party-based government model once proposed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “After United Russia wins the Duma elections in 2007, it will suggest a prime minister candidate. That prime minister’s name will be Vladimir Putin, and the president will be… Well, it won’t matter who he is.”

But there’s an entirely different election on today’s agenda; Newsweek Russia says that the favorite, United Russia, is trying to convince Muscovites that “in electing the city legislature, you’re electing the mayor,” and that everything regarding Moscow’s fate depends on United Russia.

Opinion polls indicate that only one in five Muscovites are fully aware that the rules of the game have changed radically, and the mayor won’t be directly elected any more. In general, says Newsweek Russia, the situation in Moscow reflects the nationwide situation: the authorities and ordinary citizens live in different worlds.

According to Newsweek Russia, each party is focusing on its own issue in this campaign. United Russia insists that it will retain Luzhkov as mayor. Motherland and the LDPR are arguing over which of them can best defend “the interests of native Muscovites.” The CPRF is concentrating on its firm principles. The democratic forces are concentrating on the fact that they have finally managed to unite.

And only “the city with more people than Hungary” still doesn’t seem to understand “why it needs its own parliament at all, or even how the municipal authorities are chosen.

Meanwhile, the municipal authorities are defending their own interests quite competently. The Vremya Novostei newspaper reports that the volume of public awareness advertising issued by the Moscow city government to inform the public that an election is coming up on December 4 actually exceeds the campaign advertising of all political parties.

Indeed, says Newsweek Russia, as long as United Russia has a “solid majority,” the municipal authorities and the Kremlin largely don’t care which other parties are represented in the city legislature. And no one has any doubts that United Russia will get that majority.

Thus, all the campaign advertising, major controversies, and startling proposals (such as Sergei Baburin’s sudden proposal to change the name of Volgograd Street to Stalingrad Street, “in honor of the Great Victory”) are nothing more than acts of political self-expression on the part of campaign participants.

Only one point really matters: voter turnout. But the authorities have plenty of experience in raising turnout to the necessary level – experience dating back to the Soviet era.

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