Elections 2007: a "populist promises race" and party politics "fly-traps"

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Gazeta.ru reports: “Everyone relaxed during the holiday season – apart from political parties and election commissions. Parties were compiling their candidate lists for the March 11 regional elections, and election commissions were registering them.”

According to an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine (translated into Russian at InoPressa.ru), January 1 brought an announcement about 12 parties being shut down for failing to comply with re-registration requirements specified by the party law passed in summer 2005. According to the new rules, a party must have at least 50,000 members nationwide, with at least 500 members per region in at least half of Russia’s 89 regions.

The re-registration deadline expired on New Year’s Eve, and the Federal Registration Service announced that only 17 parties had been able to comply with requirements; so only these parties will be entitled to nominate candidates in regional legislature elections this spring.

Political analyst Dmitri Badovsky told Gazeta.ru that the upcoming regional elections should provide some answers to three questions.

The March results should make it clear whether United Russia is maintaining its strength: “If they can’t manage to get around 45% of the vote – if they get less – it would mean that they’re unlikely to win a constitutional majority in the next Duma on their own.”

The next question, according to Badovsky, concerns the Just Russia party’s performance: “In effect, this is the first round of elections where Sergei Mironov’s supporters are participating as a unified party, and they need to produce a benchmark result for December. The key question is whether they can establish themselves as contenders for second place.”

Finally, the third question: a confrontation between the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the increasingly active Union of Right Forces (SPS), led by Nikita Belykh.

“The outcomes of these regional elections will decide whether the SPS can make it into the next Duma,” says Badovsky. And this is a crucial campaign for the LDPR, according to Badovsky, since it performed poorly in the previous round of regional elections. Badovsky says: “Since no more than four parties are likely to make it into the Duma, the March election results will provide the basis for a decision: either the LDPR or the SPS. They’re a rival pair. Although they appeal to different voter groups, they are fighting for their positions, their chances, and the Kremlin’s favor.”

According to Badovsky, the March elections will not be crucial to the fate of the Communist Party (CPRF): “The big question for the Communists is how Mironov’s party will affect them – whether it will take votes from them or from United Russia. I think the CPRF will get their usual percentages in the March elections, so the main issue for them will be fighting Just Russia for second place in December.”

Badovsky points out that the Yabloko party was given a warning last autumn when the pro-democracy candidate list was disqualified in Karelia. “For Yabloko, the situation will be greatly dependent on whether the SPS succeeds in its political comeback attempt this March,” says Badovsky. “If the SPS manages to produce some results, Yaboko won’t have much of a chance in December. But if the SPS achievement in the Perm territory was a localized fluke, and it fails in March, then Yabloko might have some sort of chance in the December campaign.”

As Gazeta.ru points out, the final year of any Duma convocation is always special, no matter who is in the Duma or what the rules are. Those lawmakers who want to remain in the Duma are inevitably aware that in each Duma election, only 150-160 out of 450 members manage to keep their seats.

Political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, told the Novye Izvestia newspaper that the battle for safe slots on the candidate lists of United Russia and Just Russia will start very soon. Oreshkin estimates that United Russia will win 180-250 Duma seats, with Just Russia getting 50-100 seats. At present, the United Russia faction has 310 members. Those who find themselves below 200th place on United Russia’s candidate list will start “getting nervous – wondering whether they should switch to Just Russia and secure a place in that party’s top 50.”

Both of the Kremlin’s parties have already started a “populist promises race.” The other day, as soon as United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov spoke of mortgages for young families, Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov proposed writing off half of a family’s mortgage on the birth of a second child, and writing off the full mortgage amount on the birth of a third child.

Dmitri Oreshkin says that United Russia will try to appeal to pensioners and state-sector workers, since it’s relying on their votes. Thus, there will be huge injections of funding into the national projects. United Russia might even launch an “assault” on the government, demanding that it should “open up” the Stabilization Fund and dismiss Healthcare and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov (who is hated by social benefit recipients).

The Vedomosti newspaper reports that Just Russia has secured the support of Kamchatka Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev in that region’s forthcoming election. As yet, his CPRF membership prevents him from joining Just Russia; but observers note that even if the governor isn’t a member, his support will help Just Russia in its battle for seats in the Kamchatka regional legislature.

According to Mashkovtsev’s spokeswoman Marina Gordeyeva, the governor “has stated repeatedly that the emergence of a second strong party will force United Russia to keep the promises it makes to citizens and move from words to deeds in defending their interests.”

Mashkovtsev’s term in office will expire in July, when the Kamchatka region and the Koryak autonomous district are merged to form the Kamchatka territory.

A source familiar with Mashkovtsev’s negotiations with Sergei Mironov’s representatives told Vedomosti that Mashkovtsev has promised Just Russia his full support, and is thinking of joining the party. But Just Russia sources say there’s no information about the possibility of Mashkovtsev becoming a member; and CPRF sources say that Mashkovtsev is unlikely to quit that party.

Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the CPRF Central Committee: “As far as I understand the complexities of a regional leader’s duties, he cannot ignore his region’s party-building processes in the forms he considers necessary – but I don’t see any grounds to expect that the CPRF will lose any members.”

Political analyst Rostislav Turovsky told Vedomosti that if Just Russia positions itself skillfully, it has a chance to establish itself in the protest vote niche by drawing on Governor Mashkovtsev’s resources. Turovsky predicts that Mashkovtsev will join Just Russia after all. Mironov’s party hasn’t been able to recruit any regional leaders to date.

When the CPRF expelled Gennadi Semigin, Gennadi Seleznev, and Svetlana Goryacheva in 2002, Mashkovtsev described this move as a path to “self-destruction.” As recently as January 9, Semigin became the leader of one of the Duma’s five factions; according to experts, this faction might be used by the authorities as a spoiler for Just Russia.

The new faction has been named the Motherland People’s Patriotic Union (People’s Will – Socialist United Party of Russia – Patriots of Russia). As the Gazeta newspaper reports, Patriots of Russia leader Gennadi Semigin has replaced People’s Will leader Sergei Baburin as faction leader. Baburin retains the post of party co-chairman.

The faction has 17 members at present, but sources told Vedomosti that it may soon gain ten more – some independents and some from Motherland. Baburin has expressed the hope that the alliance with Patriots of Russia will extend beyond the faction level, leading to the formation of an inter-party coalition.

Having become the faction leader, Semigin swung into action on the lawmaking front. In contrast to last year, when Semigin didn’t submit a single initiative, he proposed 15 bills at once during a faction meeting on January 11.

According to Gazeta.ru, the most prominent of these is a bill that proposes criminal penalties – up to 15 years’ imprisonment (sentences of this length are usually given to murderers and rapists) – for falsifying the results of elections at any level. This bill, already submitted to the Supreme Court for assessment, is unlikely to be approved by the Kremlin and the Duma majority: everyone understands that it would be fundamentally impossible to observe such a law without dismantling the present-day political system.

Pavel Krasheninnikov (United Russia faction), chairman of the Duma’s committee on civil, criminal, arbitration, and process law, told the Vremya Novostei newspaper that he considers such measures excessive. Krasheninnikov said: “Undoubtedly, people should be punished for falsifying election results – by means of fines, or even prison terms if their crimes are particularly severe. But four years is quite sufficient. In my view, the proposal to increase penalties to 15 years is entirely unjustified.”

Political analyst Yuri Korgunyuk told Vedomosti that the Duma’s new faction has emerged because some groups within the Kremlin are seeking to create a rival for Just Russia: Semigin is being given some single-mandate district lawmakers, with their own electorates, so that he can place them at the head of his party’s candidate lists. The move to replace the faction leader is logical, according to Korgunyuk: although Baburin has done deals with the Kremlin, he still has some strong convictions of his own – whereas Semigin is entirely manageable.

Gazeta.ru also notes Semigin’s manageability: at one point in the past, with the Kremlin’s approval (if not on the Kremlin’s orders), he organized a split in the then-influential CPRF and established his own “shadow cabinet.”

Gazeta.ru says that the bill proposed by Semigin indicates the nature of the 2007-08 federal campaigns: the forthcoming election season will be dominated by abstract political and social demands of a populist nature, for the benefit of voters – while behind-the-scenes bargaining over Duma quotas continues among shadowy factions within the Kremlin.

According to an article in Der Spiegel (translated at InoPressa.ru), the Motherland People’s Patriotic Union is “a party politics fly-trap for malcontents, in which they won’t be able to cause any trouble for those who hold power.”

“Fly-traps” of this kind have been created ever since the Yeltsin era, but the technique has been perfected by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration. He managed to deprive the CPRF of its political allies, thus halving its share of the vote – from 25% in 1999 to 12% in 2003.

According to Der Spiegel, Surkov’s greatest triumph is also the most dubious achievement of the current Kremlin administration. “The party system managed from the Kremlin is very reminiscent of the system that existed in a country Surkov never visited; the country where his boss, Vladimir Putin, worked for five years, right up until its collapse. East Germany. That regime permitted the existence of four managed ‘party blocs,’ thus showing the outside world a semblance of democracy. These days, the managed parties compete in elections – in contrast to East Germany, where they entered parliament via common lists.”

Der Spiegel maintains that Surkov’s pet project, sovereign democracy, is an elegant cover for an authoritarian system which may not be as solid as it seems at first sight. In conversations with Kremlin functionaries, Surkov once let slip something about “brittle stability” in Russia, and even “the illusion of stability.”

This view is shared by an article in Handelsblatt (translated at InoPressa.ru), which notes: “Although the Kremlin is making every effort to carry out a smooth transition of power at the top, uncertainty is growing in Russia.” This uncertainty “has not yet reached the point of open discontent: the Kremlin’s opponents organize demonstrations, but most Russian citizens try to avoid politics.”

In an article for Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, Leonid Radzikhovsky says: “At present, Russia lacks any social, moral, or intellectual forces capable of changing the trajectory of its fixation on the petroleum feeding-trough.” In Radzikhovsky’s view, “this reliance on administrative resources and raw materials exports, with tedious calls for ‘reviving Great Russia’ and a tawdry imitation of ‘political life’ will continue… for at least another year.”

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