Regional elections: political boredom as United Russia’s greatest achievement

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Fourteen parties will participate in nine regional parliamentary elections on October 8.

In eight of the nine regions, the United Russia party’s candidate lists are headed by regional leaders. The Independent Elections Institute says that this technique, known as “steam engines,” is becoming more widespread: United Russia had regional leaders heading five out of eight candidate lists in the March 12 regional elections, and five out of 12 lists in autumn 2005 (reported in the Vedomosti newspaper).

A source from United Russia’s central executive committee told Vedomosti that United Russia, the Kremlin party, which is positioning itself as “the party of real action,” has chosen the national projects as its major trump card in the regions. In Novgorod, for example, United Russia is claiming credit for the local administration’s purchase of 39 ambulances (as part of the Healthcare national project). In Karelia, the party’s local branch has written a development plan for the region to 2011, promising to facilitate the formation of an affordable housing market and “a territory of protection for motherhood.”

So it doesn’t matter that many of Karelia’s rural schools have outdoor toilets, says Smart Money magazine. Sergei Katanandov, regional leader of Karelia, told Smart Money: “We have opened a new trolley-bus route in Petrozavodsk, refurbished the Yunost stadium, and laid the foundations of a swimming pool in Kostomuksh. In each district, we can demonstrate real achievements.”

Primorye territory Governor Nikolai Sokolov has also made his priorities clear: “The region’s chief problems are housing and communal services, low incomes, and high prices. If we can ensure that all households have both hot and cold water, the voters will be happy.”

Observers are skeptical. As Yevgeny Gontmakher from the Social Research and Innovation Center told Vedomosti, it’s dangerous to base a campaign on the national projects: half of ordinary citizens are unaware of them, and the other half see problems in their implementation.

Indeed, even the primary national project – Affordable Housing, supervised by successor-favorite First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev – has obviously stalled, “sinking in Russia’s swamp of corruption,” as Profil magazine puts it. So badly, in fact, that “it’s time for the entire Kremlin-linked political community to rush to the rescue.”

Nevertheless, as Vedomosti reports, social policy issues are being used extensively by most participants in the regional campaigns, even the democrats.

The Yabloko party is criticizing the housing and utilities situation and calling for affordable housing and healthcare. The Russian Party of Pensioners is organizing a nationwide March Against Poverty, using the slogan “For our grandchildren, for our children, for ourselves.” In the Primorye territory, the Russian Party of Life is asking citizens to “set their own pensions” – by indicating on survey forms the sums they would prefer to receive. The Lipetsk branch of the LDPR is calling for lower utilities rates and debt write-offs for farmers, and so on.

In Yevgeny Gontmakher’s view, the slogans being used by the parties are “true enough, but simplistic and deceptive” – healthcare policy is determined by Moscow, the problems of pensioners are handled by the Pension Fund and the federal government.” Gontmakher maintains that the parties are focusing on social issues “because it’s too dangerous to criticize regional governments.”

Alexander Kynev from the Humanities and Political Studies Institute points out that relying on regional leaders could turn out to be a mistaken campaign strategy: many of them have low popularity ratings – for example, Sergei Katanandov (Karelia), Sergei Darkin (Primorye), Sherig-ool Oorzhaka (Tuva).

It would seem that the parties have substantial incentives to invest all their efforts in the regional campaigns, says Smart Money magazine: “after all, this is their second-last opportunity to test out slogans and campaign techniques before the Duma election of 2007.” Besides, after seven years of economic growth, regional parliaments control the distribution of substantial sums.

“This makes it all the more surprising to observer the lethargy and incompetence of most of the parties taking part in the October elections,” says Smart Money. “Half-hearted rallies, cloned in some unknown manner, and taciturn campaign activists who avoid the cameras.”

According to Smart Money, the explanation for this is fairly simple: “Boring elections are satisfactory for everyone.” For the regional leaders who are heading United Russia’s candidate lists, “political boredom is evidence of stability, which is United Russia’s chief trump card in the campaigns.” Besides, a too-exciting campaign might boost voter turnout and “make United Russia’s overwhelming victory less certain.”

The opposition, taught a lesson by bitter experience, prefers to set itself realistic objectives: “A quiet defeat, with consolation prizes in the form of a couple of seats here and there – instead of an ambitious campaign at the risk of disqualification.”

All the same, says Vedomosti, United Russia has to be worried about the new alliance formed by the Russian Party of Life (RPL), Motherland (Rodina), and the Russian Party of Pensioners.

The fact that some prominent politicians are heading RPL candidate lists threatens to boost interest in the campaigns and increase turnout. For example, the RPL list in the Lipetsk region is headed by the RPL leader, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. In the same region, the RPL has been granted permission to use pictures of President Putin in its campaign materials.

In the Novgorod region, the RPL’s declared intention of becoming Russia’s second system-forming party has “thoroughly confused bureaucrats,” as “a source close to Novgorod business circles” told Vedomosti. Besides, the RPL is actively courting representatives of the authorities: its candidate list in Novgorod is headed by Alexander Kostiukhin, mayor of Borovichi, and its list in Karelia is headed by former prime minister Viktor Stepanov.

In order to underscore the difference between itself and United Russia, Mironov’s party insists that it isn’t using administrative resources at all.

Nikolai Levichev, first deputy chairman of the RPL, said in an interview with the Moskovskie Novosti weekly: “Administrative resources – that’s when managers are summoned by their superiors and told that they’ll lose their jobs unless their subordinates vote for the proper party.” In Levichev’s view, President Putin’s permission for the RPL to use his image and quote his positive statements about the party is “just a piece of paper.” It can’t even be used “to go to a housing and utilities office and get concessions on electricity rates or garbage disposal.” It only entitles the RPL “to publish a photograph of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in a newspaper, with a statement that we support the proposals he made in his annual address to parliament – although the government seems in no hurry to implement those proposals, for some reason. That’s all. How can that be described as using administrative resources?”

All the same, United Russia is worried. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, a United Russia think-tank called the Social-Conservative Policy Center recently held a forum on the problems of election campaign confrontations with the RPL and the other parties calling themselves the “relevant left.”

Unitl now, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, United Russia activists at all levels had steadfastly denied that the new party alliance poses any danger to them. Andrei Isayev, chairman of the Duma’s labor and social policy committee, points out that it still isn’t clear whether the RPL has any serious political prospects. However, according to Isayev, there’s no doubt that the Kremlin’s new project could “cause some anxiety” within United Russia, and “reduce the party’s results in the parliamentary elections.”

Isayev considers the chief danger to be a campaign structure in which United Russia is presented to voters as the center-right party, while the RPL is presented as the center-left party. Isayev said: “In popular opinion, the right wing is associated with ‘greedy politicians’ who won’t permit oil export revenues to be spent, while leftists are seen as more generous and humane politicians.” Consequently, by agreeing to such a structure – that is, by declaring itself a right-wing party, or even a conservative party – United Russia would obviously place itself at a disadvantage.

Isayev even proposed abandoning the term “conservatism,” which many of his party colleagues like so much: “Why should we give up everything to Mironov?”

In Isayev’s view, it would be much safer for United Russia to call itself a “people’s party,” especially since it’s “not only implementing liberal reforms,” but also doing a great deal to solve social problems.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the sense of panic within United Russia “is certainly being enhanced by rumors of a recent meeting between RPL leaders and Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration.” According to some reports, this meeting included a discussion of distributing seats in the next Duma.

There are other alarming rumors as well; for example, the rumor that “several prominent United Russia members might switch to Sergei Mironov’s party.”

Valery Ryazansky, deputy chairman of United Russia’s Duma faction, says it’s only in Moscow that all parties appear equal in size; in reality, however, only United Russia and the Communist Party have a full-fledged network of local branches throughout the regions. In Ryazansky’s view, there are objective reasons for the RPL’s problems with registration in certain regions: “That party was cobbled together hastily, and hasn’t had time to establish a system of local branches.”

Meanwhile, the Kommersant newspaper reported recently that the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation has overturned the Tuva Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify the RPL from that region’s parliamentary election.

It’s worth noting, says Kommersant, that shortly before this, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation had ordered the Sverdlovsk election commission to register the RPL for the Sverdlovsk region’s parliamentary election. And in the Jewish autonomous region, the RPL’s disqualification was reversed by the regional court.

Thus, according to Kommersant, the RPL has managed to “get back into all the regional campaigns where efforts were made to drive it out, and gain substantial publicity in the process.”

But Kommersant also notes that regional leaders are still very uncertain about the nature and significance of the RPL.

In Sverdlovsk, “the key region in the current wave of election campaigns,” the regional authorities are completely baffled: why is the Kremlin creating artificial political competition? And exactly how is the Kremlin’s “second leg” supposed to function?

Vadim Dubichev, deputy head of the Sverdlovsk regional administration, told Kommersant: “There can’t be two Kremlin parties. And I don’t understand how this will work.”

Another aide to Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel expressed the opinion that “if they’ve decided to set up a second party, it would make sense to have the two parties campaigning in different regions, so they can compete without getting in each other’s way.”

According to Kommersant, however, although campaigns are under way in nine regions, “it’s only in Tuva that the confrontation between United Russia and the RPL reflects a full-fledged split” in the regional elite.

In the Urals, the Russian Party of Pensioners and the LDPR are capable of getting past the election threshold (7% of the vote). It remains uncertain whether the RPL and Motherland can manage to get 7%. Nevertheless, the political elite in the Urals “grew tense” when President Putin gave permission for the RPL to use his image in the Lipetsk region: “Why is he doing this? Incomprehensible.”

Kommersant has its own theory on that score: “United Russia, the party of stability, has been organized for the purpose of extinguishing conflicts and public debate. It’s impossible to argue with United Russia about the essential aspects of the state’s policy course. The only way to counter United Russia is by using populist or extremist slogans – as many diverse and divided movements are doing in the regions.”

It’s quite likely, says Kommersant, that “Vladimir Putin’s new project, which is causing such a stir in the regions, is intended to consolidate those movements within Sergei Mironov’s loyalist, ideology-free faction in parliament.”

Then again, as Profil magazine notes, “social discontent has accumulated to a greater extent than the Kremlin perceives.” Consequently, in the upcoming elections – not only the regional elections, but the “big” federal elections – a few unexpected developments cannot be ruled out: “For example, the LDPR – or even the Communists – might get a surprisingly high proportion of the vote.” For some reason, the Communists “have been permitted an unusual amount of television coverage” lately.

Besides, in the election of 2003, public demand for “a strong hand to restore order” (including opposition to immigration) was expressed as votes for Dmitri Rogozin, and public demand for social justice was expressed as votes for Sergei Glaziev. “It’s hard to imagine Sergei Mironov filling these roles,” says Profil. “He’d look like a ballet dancer in a boxing-ring.” But no other suitable substitutes are apparent so far: “In general, all parties have a severe shortage of colorful, charismatic politicians.”

The Kremlin is well aware that outstanding individuals only cause problems in day-to-day operations, “so it’s mediocrities who are valued these days.”

For this reason, many believe that the next Duma will largely resemble the present Duma.

And given United Russia’s predictable and indisputable success in the Duma election, the remaining votes required for a pro-Kremlin constitutional majority in parliament might be contributed by Sergei Mironov’s party, for example.

But there are also some disturbing signs these days, says Profil: “What a fright everyone got when a number of young, vigorous, not at all asocial figures turned up in Kondopoga!”

This is hardly surprising: as Profil notes, “a threat from outside the system” is the most unpalatable scenario for the authorities. “Everyone tried not to mention this, but it’s a fact: there are more and more well-organized, well-informed, mobile brigades in Russia” – consisting of people who “don’t find Gryzlov or Mironov inspiring at all.”

Presumably, even if such forces are excluded from the next Duma (as Profil notes, “the Kremlin’s strategists are strong and clever enough to ensure that”), such attitudes won’t dissipate of their own accord. “And no one in the Kremlin or the Duma has any idea what to do about this.”

Then again, there’s still plenty of time to seek the one true solution: the immediate future holds only the boring regional elections.

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