The illusion of elections

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The results of the dress rehearsal, or the Great Opinion Poll, have been announced. That’s what the media are calling the regional legislature elections held on March 11 in 14 out of the Russian Federation’s 86 regions.

The Rossiiskie Vesti newspaper explains it as follows: “In effect, this is the last large-scale electoral event before the federal parliamentary election. Thus, for most parties March 11 is a dress rehearsal for the Duma election.” The Polit.ru website notes that “these election results are being discussed as if they were the results of an opinion poll – a big one.” And this Great Opinion Poll is an attempt to understand exactly what kind of game will be played from now until December 2007.

Gazeta.ru reports the election outcomes: United Russia confirmed its title as Russia’s leading party, winning in 13 out of 14 regions. Its results ranged from 33.81% of the vote in the Samara region to 69.11% in Dagestan. Its average was close to 45%, the figure United Russia had set as its target.

The only exception to United Russia’s victory march was the Stavropol territory, where the Just Russia party won with 37% of the vote, compared to only 23.93% for United Russia. Experts are saying that United Russia’s performance was adversely affected by dirty campaign tactics, scandals, and the low approval rating of Stavropol Governor Alexander Chernogorov. United Russia placed Chernogorov at the top of its candidate list – failing to consider what voters might think of a man who switched from the Communist Party to United Russia only a few months before the election.

In the other regions, Just Russia’s achievements weren’t quite as brilliant: it gained between 8% and 16% of the vote, winning representation in 13 out of 14 regional legislatures (except the Omsk region). The Communist Party (CPRF) made it into all 14 regional legislatures, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) managed 11.

The performance of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) may be viewed as a success compared to its closest rival, the Yabloko party. Yabloko participated in three of the regional elections, but failed to cross the 7% threshold in any of them. The SPS won representation in five regional legislatures.

The Agrarian Party made it into two regional legislatures (Vologda region and Dagestan). The Greens succeeded in the Samara region.

The chief conclusion about the influence of these elections on the party system was expressed by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, at a press conference in the Kremlin. The Interfax news agency quotes Surkov as saying: “The fact that four parliamentary parties have performed successfully in these elections indicates that the political field has mostly taken shape.”

Kommersant suggests that this statement may be translated from the language of ideology into layman’s terms as follows: “The parties already represented in the lower house – United Russia, Just Russia, the CPRF, and the LDPR – should be guaranteed to make it into the next Duma.”

These regional elections, according to Kommersant, showed the success of “the first practical test of the few-party system model, with the two Kremlin parties forming its nucleus.” However, contrary to the militant statements of Just Russia’s leaders, Just Russia hasn’t managed to become United Russia’s “one and only real rival” as yet.

Experts hold contrasting views on the election performance of “the Kremlin’s two legs” – United Russia and Just Russia.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta maintains that United Russia’s successful performance in most regions was entirely predictable, due to the presence of powerful administrative resources – more precisely, the regional leaders on the party’s candidate lists. United Russia’s candidates also won in the regions which used single-mandate districts as well as party lists. Consequently, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, it’s safe to say that United Russia will control the regional parliaments.

In an interview with Radio Liberty, political analyst Alexander Kynev said that Just Russia members include regional small and medium-sized business owners, and second-echelon regional officials – “roughly speaking, they may be described as the new regional elite.” According to Kynev, “to some extent, the confrontation between United Russia and Just Russia in a number of regions may be seen as a conflict between the old and new regional elites.”

“These results are successful for Just Russia, given that this party was established only last year,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, in an interview with Gazeta.ru. Makarkin notes that the Stavropol territory outcome was the very first case of United Russia losing a major election campaign – and “this will encourage more of the significant regional players to join Just Russia.”

Dmitri Badovsky, deputy director of the Social Systems Research Institute, partially agrees with Makarkin: “This is a substantial achievement for a party’s first campaign, but the outcome of Just Russia’s battle with the CPRF has not been conclusive. As yet, Just Russia has not managed to gain the status of second party.” In Badovsky’s view, “Just Russia’s achievements have been substantial in those regions where it had the backing of regional administrative resources.”

The same goes for United Russia, which performed strongly in administratively well-regulated regions like Dagestan and Omsk. According to Badkovsky, “in the lead-up to the Duma election, United Russia will rely on major, significant regions where the majority of voters live: the Krasnodar territory, the Rostov region, Moscow and St. Petersburg.”

Badovsky also predicts that in future, the Kremlin will try to prevent intense clashes between the resources of Just Russia and United Russia, since “this kind of confrontation only produces more votes for the Communists and the LDPR.”

Badovsky says: “The Kremlin might order them to slow down. The parties would stop sparring with each other. Just Russia would stop trying to use criticism to take votes from United Russia and switch to collecting other voter groups.”

Many Russian publications have described these election results as an end to United Russia’s monopoly, saying that United Russia has exhausted its electoral resources.

Projecting the regional election results onto the Duma election, political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin told RBC Daily that United Russia is likely to lose about 70 Duma seats: “United Russia has exhausted its growth potential, and is likely to lose ground, with some of its people quitting to join Just Russia.” Along with United Russia, says Oreshkin, the next Duma will also include Just Russia (about 20% of seats), the CPRF (15%), the LDPR (10%), and perhaps the SPS (7%).

Kommersant points out that experts have doubts about the overall prospects of the two-party system being established in Russia. “With a proportional voting system, a two-party system is impossible by definition,” says Igor Bunin, general director of the Political Techniques Center. “No matter how high the threshold is set, three or four parties will get past it anyway. The question is whether the elite will diversify its political assets and investments, or invest solely in United Russia. Some division of investment has happened already, and this means that there’s some prospect of United Russia being replaced as the leading party sometime in the very distant future.”

Mark Urnov from the Applied Political Science Faculty at the Higher School of Economics told the Gazeta newspaper that the two-party system based entirely on President Putin’s authority could fall apart straight after the presidential election of 2008. Urnov maintains that “if all opposition forces were granted access to television coverage right now, United Russia wouldn’t be winning so confidently – its results would be significantly worse.” Supporting evidence for this view can be found in the story of Our Home is Russia, a pro-Kremlin party which fell apart with a change of administration.

While Just Russia was competing with United Russia, the Communists achieved a confident second place in the March elections. According to Kommersant, the CPRF was the runner-up in seven regions and third in five regions – whereas Just Russia finished second in five regions and third in six regions. The CPRF also achieved a higher average across all 14 regions: 16.1% of the vote, compared to Just Russia’s average of 15.4% (United Russia was far ahead of both, averaging 44.5%). Not surprisingly, Vladislav Surkov described the CPRF’s results as “good” and “stable.”

Experts agree with that conclusion. Igor Bunin notes that “although the CPRF has been written off many times, it has shown that it’s nowhere near dead yet.”

Valery Fedorov, head of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), maintains that the fierce competition between United Russia and Just Russia diverted attention from the Communists: “And that’s the ideal situation for the CPRF. When the authorities aren’t paying attention to it or striving to bring it down, it picks up more votes.”

The RIA Novosti news agency says that the CPRF’s performance was facilitated by Russia’s intense social stratification: “Russia is a land of contrasts, so to speak. Hence the popularity of a party whose name most people associate with one of those contrasts – poverty.”

Kommersant notes that the LDPR seems to have nothing to worry about either. It averaged 9.6% of the vote on March 11, so it can hope to cross the 7% threshold confidently in the Duma election – despite predictable failures in the LDPR’s “non-core regions” like Dagestan and the Moscow region. Moreover, in a number of regions the LDPR could play the promising role of “third force,” with both United Russia and Just Russia seeking its support. And there is every reason to assume that the LDPR will play a similar role in the next Duma.

According to Kommersant, the SPS performed better in the March 11 elections than any other party not represented in the Duma. It crossed the 7% threshold in five out of nine regions. The SPS even managed some respectable results in traditionally pro-Communist regions like the Stavropol territory and the Orel region – thus noticeably enhancing its chances of becoming the fifth party allowed into the Duma this December (especially against the backdrop of Yabloko’s complete failure).

This view is supported by Vladislav Surkov’s comment that the SPS results were “fairly convincing.”

But that’s not enough for SPS leader Nikita Belykh. Gazeta quotes him as saying: “These results are a long way from what we might consider successful. I’d like to repeat the result we achieved in the Perm territory election.”

Belykh was more optimistic in an interview with the Vremya Novostei newspaper: “We had a certain qualitative objective, and we managed to achieve it: we overcame the defeatist trend among pro-democracy forces. We showed that we are capable of performing successfully in elections.”

But experts say that the SPS party’s chances of becoming the fifth wheel on the Duma cart aren’t all that high, even in the wake of the March elections.

Vitali Ivanov, vice president of the Political Conjuncture Center, told Kommersant that the SPS doesn’t have any specific agreements with the Kremlin about being included “in some sort of Kremlin party pool.” Ivanov said: “The SPS would like to reach agreement with the authorities and make it into the Kremlin pool in the lead-up to the Duma election. But if five parties are represented in the next Duma, United Russia wouldn’t even have a simple majority. Consequently, although there will be a battle for fifth place, only four parties will make it into the Duma.”

In an interview with Gazeta.ru, Alexei Makarkin says: “The SPS is balancing on the brink of crossing the 7% threshold. If any serious efforts are made against it – if an active spoiler emerges – it wouldn’t have enough reserves of stability.”

That spoiler could be Civil Force (formerly known as Free Russia), the new party headed by prominent lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky. Dmitri Badovsky told Gazeta.ru: “The SPS results on March 11 will intensify intra-Kremlin debates over whether the Duma should have a liberal faction. A five-party Duma is almost impossible, since the majority’s established structure would be eroded. What’s more, we are seeing increasing activity from Civil Force. We might see both the SPS and Civil Force in the Duma election, competing with each other and both failing to cross the 7% representation threshold.”

In an interview with Radio Liberty, Dmitri Oreshkin expressed some doubts about Civil Force’s prospects in the December election: “it’s unlikely to succeed, since there isn’t enough time for the party to promote itself.” Therefore, “they should reach agreement and allow the SPS to go ahead.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta analyzes the influence of campaign funding on the election results. It turns out that total spending on the March campaigns was almost as high as spending in the Duma election of 2003. The parties spent around 1.57 billion rubles between them. Naturally, United Russia was the richest – its campaign fund collected 615 million rubles. Next were Just Russia (429 million rubles) and the SPS (214.5 million rubles). The campaign funds of other parties were substantially smaller: Patriots of Russia with 97 million rubles, the LDPR with 91 million rubles, and Yabloko with 36.5 million rubles. It’s interesting to note that the Greens, participating only in the Samara region, collected 35.5 million rubles – almost as much as Yabloko had for its campaigns in several regions. The CPRF’s campaign fund amounted to 25.4 million rubles, and People’s Will had only 14.6 million rubles.

Leaving aside the costs of campaigns in single-mandate districts, the picture is as follows, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The cost of votes gained via party lists came to 13 million rubles per percentage point for United Russia, 27.8 million rubles for Just Russia, 32.4 million rubles for the SPS, and 9.4 million rubles for the LDPR. As always, the CPRF’s campaign was the most economical – just over 1.5 million rubles per percentage point. The remaining parties – apart from the Agrarians and the Greens – basically wasted their money.

All observers noted the unprecedented use of dirty campaign tactics in these elections. The Daily Telegraph reports: “Supporters of the two parties have taken to pelting each other with eggs and even – in one instance – with human excrement… Activists masquerading as members of the other party appear in city squares drinking copious amounts of vodka and fighting with each other. Anonymous leaflets have suggested that some candidates are dead, HIV-positive or closet fascists.”

All the Russian media have reported an incident that allegedly took place in the Matveevo district of the Kurgan region: only two voters turned up – a candidate and his friend – thus ensuring a 100% result for the candidate.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper reports that an “extra” electoral district was discovered in Orel on voting day. A total of 725 citizens voted in formation – all patients under intensive observation at the Orel Regional Specialized Hospital. And Pavel Merkulov, leader of United Russia’s Orel branch, was the only one who knew of this district’s existence. Merkulov even campaigned there and sent an observer.

The CPRF supplied Novye Izvestia with some information that provides a revealing picture of how elections work in the regions. In a number of the Orel region’s rural districts, a peculiar mode of transport was provided to serve the needs of disabled citizens who voted from their homes. This was “a saddled horse capable of carrying only one rider.” An election commission member mounted the horse, while party representatives and candidates had to chase after him on foot.

Anna Solodukha, public relations manager for the SPS, told Novye Izvestia: “In Novokuibyshevsk in the Samara region, a fire alarm went off at the polling station – and everyone was evacuated except for election commission members.”

Then again, The Daily Telegraph doesn’t rule out the possibility that all this dirt “is itself artificial to create an impression of a genuine election. Some say the results were pre-determined in the Kremlin several weeks ago.”

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