Duma campaign intrigues: the one-eyed man is king

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The Duma election campaign has officially begun. Voting day isn’t until December 2, but the media already know the answer to the big question: United Russia is sure to win. The suspense in this election concerns the percentage of the vote that will go to United Russia. Among other questions actively discussed in the press this week are the following: what will be the final score in the battle for second place between Just Russia and the Communist Party (CPRF), will Vladimir Zhirinovsky come crashing down, how will the Union of Right Forces (SPS) fare, and whether at least one of President Vladimir Putin’s potential successors will head the candidate lists of United Russia or Just Russia.

The Gazeta newspaper reports that Valery Fedorov, director of the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), gathered representatives of all the major parties on August 31 and announced his first election forecast.

VTsIOM polls indicate the following election outcome: 47.4% of the vote for United Russia, 14.9% for the CPRF, 11.7% for Just Russia, and 8.8% for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). The remaining parties are under the 7% threshold. But all these figures will be realistic only if about half of eligible voters – 49.5%, for instance – actually turn out to vote.

Valery Fedorov said: “United Russia is likely to get 257 Duma seats, with 81 seats for the CPRF, 64 seats for Just Russia, and 48 seats for the LDPR.”

Political analyst Alexander Kynev maintains that VTsIOM’s forecasts could be wrong if voter turnout is substantially higher or lower than 50%. Since Vladimir Churov, the energetic Central Electoral Commission chairman, has already promised to achieve 60% turnout, United Russia’s success may turn out to be somewhat diluted. Higher turnout could primarily benefit the parties that nobody voted for in the last election. Arkady Lyubarev, head of the election campaign monitoring programs directorate at the Independent Institute of Elections, told Gazeta: “That’s precisely how the Party of Pensioners managed to win some popularity in the spring round of regional elections. And in December, a significant proportion of votes may go to Just Russia.”

Profil magazine takes the view that in the next parliament, United Russia will lose the constitutional majority it holds in the Duma at present (over 300 seats). But a result of even 240-260 seats would guarantee United Russia’s control of simple majority voting (226 votes – for the federal budget, taxes, and so on). And it’s 100% certain that United Russia would be able to vote in coalition with other Kremlin-loyalist parties on matters of principal importance, requiring over 300 votes (amendments to the Constitution, as well as federal constitutional laws – forming new regions, declaring a state of emergency, affecting the Constitutional Court, making decisions on referendums, the national anthem, the flag, and so on).

The Novye Izvestia newspaper predicts that the real clash will develop between Just Russia, which is aiming for the left-wing vote, and the CPRF. The question is which of these parties will take second place. Overall, they will be fighting for 15-18% of the vote. Dmitri Badovsky, deputy director of the Social Systems Institute: “They’ll be running neck and neck throughout the campaign. We can already see that Just Russia is increasing its campaign pressure, aiming precisly at the CPRF.”

But the intensity of this battle will also depend on Just Russia’s behavior in relation to United Russia. Andrei Ryabov, Expert Council member at the Carnegie Moscow Center, offers the following prediction: “If Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov decides to strike at United Russia for real, things could get interesting.” But Ryabov doesn’t rule out the possibility that Mironov may be reined in by the Kremlin, since an all-out battle could undermine the positions of both Kremlin parties.

Profil maintains that achieving second place in the election would have significant consequences for Mironov’s project. Firstly, Just Russia would gain conclusive legitimacy among those members of the political and business elite who still haven’t made up their minds: whether to back a promising newcomer, or try their luck in United Russia’s already-crowded campaign entourage.

Secondly, success for Just Russia would enable it to seriously aspire to that part of the left-wing electorate which still votes for the CPRF. If Just Russia takes second place, it might launch a full-scale assault on the CPRF after the election. Then the CPRF would be left with nothing but its “old communists,” whose numbers are declining due to natural attrition. Ambitious young people may well be attracted by Mironov’s “socialists,” seeing them as “more interesting” (if only because of their loyalty to the authorities).

The LDPR is going into the Duma campaign in a somewhat weakened state, but Novye Izvestia predicts that this is unlikely to prevent the party from crossing the 7% threshold, since the LDPR usually bases its entire campaign on its leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Profil agrees, emphasizing that the LDPR’s problems – the departure of Alexei Mitrofanov, low opinion poll figures – may be incentives for the party’s chief resource, “the Zhirinovsky factor.”

The LDPR leader might also be goaded by some “gestures” from the Communists. The RBC Daily newspaper quotes CPRF faction lawmaker Viktor Tyulkin as saying: “I would like to extend my condolences to Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The ship is sinking, and Zhirinovsky has already served his purpose in the party.” CPRF leader Gennady Zyuranov told Vedomosti that only three parties will make it into the Duma – the CPRF, United Russia, and Just Russia; he added that “the LDPR will simply be used and written off when it’s no longer useful.”

Novye Izvestia maintains that the SPS party’s chances of making it into the Duma largely depend on what kind of voters it chooses to target. The main problem for the SPS is low voter turnout among its traditional supporters.

Profil notes that the size of this electorate, critical for Duma representation even with a 5% threshold, becomes simply negligible with a 7% threshold in place.

Dmitri Badovsky told Novye Izvestia: “For the SPS, much will depend on how its internal debates are resolved. Will the SPS continue seeking additional voter support with the aid of populist initiatives – or will it emphasize its liberal ideological positions?” Moreover, there will be three spoiler-parties dancing around the SPS and taking votes from it: Civil Force, the Democratic Party of Russia, and (in part) Yabloko.

Profil notes that the Kremlin, after initially supporting the formation of Civil Force, lost enthusiasm for this project almost immediately. This means that Civil Force is most unlikely to make it into the Duma; but it will bite off a couple of percentage points from the SPS anyway. And since the SPS is already teetering on the brink of 7%, Civil Force may well play a fateful role there.

Novye Izvestia argues that if the SPS and Yabloko fail in this election, the very existence of a pro-democracy opposition in Russia would be open to question.

Profil observes that a paradoxical situation has arisen. On the one hand, the Kremlin is letting it be understood that in principle, it’s not opposed to seeing the SPS (and Yabloko, to a lesser extent) make a comeback to federal politics. This particular circumstance explains why the SPS and Yabloko cannot adopt a radically critical stance, and why they keep dissociating themselves from the dubious anti-Kremlin protests of the opposition outside the system (Kasparov, Limonov, Kasyanov, and so on). On the other hand, however, the Kremlin is letting it be understood that the SPS and Yabloko shouldn’t expect it to help them.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta discusses why the Kremlin needs the SPS. It maintains that the Kremlin, which is establishing powerful state corporations and pumping vast amounts of state funding into them, sees the future of these companies as involving IPO preparations. But this could be obstructed by uncontrolled social populism and an incorrect impression of the state’s growing role on the part of most political parties represented in parliament. That’s why the Kremlin could find the SPS useful: to talk about free-market goals and transformation methods.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, United Russia is now on the right – which isn’t always convenient in political terms. In recent years, United Russia has passed the most market-oriented laws and codes, including the Labor Code. Now they will be a target for all who are on the left – and everyone is on the left these days. And this, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, is why we should expect one of the market-oriented liberal parties to make it into the Duma.

Another point of suspense in the Duma election focuses on whether the Kremlin parties can manage to get the potential successors into their ranks (Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev, for instance).

Profil notes that there are three theories about the “successors” being involved in the parliamentary election: the dull theory, the halfway theory, and the integrated theory.

According to the first theory, none of the “successors” will be drawn into the parliamentary campaign; the Duma election will go ahead on its own, and Vladimir Putin won’t announce any successor preference until January, or even February. Thus, it won’t be a matter of the “successor” being attached to a party; rather, the successful parties will later declare their unconditional support for the president’s choice.

According to the second theory, by October – when the parties hold their “decisive” congresses – Putin will have finalized his choice, and it will be announced at a congress or straight after a congress that the “successor” is joining the chosen party. This would boost the resources of party and “successor” alike.

Third theory: all the “successors” are delegated to selected parties, heading their candidate lists. Thus, Putin’s favorite system of checks and balances would be retained, and the political palette would gain various hues of leaders and programs: the social aspect, the microeconomic aspect, the foreign policy aspect.

Profil quotes Kremlin sources as saying that the second and third scenarios are unlikely. They observe that “it wouldn’t be a bad thing, overall,” but since the two leading parties still haven’t become equal, and there’s no question of Russia having a classic two-party model as yet, Putin probably wouldn’t choose to undermine any of his potential “successors” by sending them to join parties whose results in the Duma election will be less than spectacular. And sending only one particular person to join one particular party would be tantamount to revealing Putin’s choice in autumn.

The Kommersant newspaper supports the “dull” theory. It quotes an informed source in United Russia as saying that when United Russia faction presidium members met with President Putin after the Duma’s spring session, they were told that “every form of support will be given to the party,” but “neither the president nor the senior deputy prime ministers nor any other heavyweights will be among the top three candidates on United Russia’s list for the Duma election.”

Kommersant maintains that since two of the top three places on United Russia’s list have already been claimed by party leader Boris Gryzlov and Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, the third candidate might be some celebrity who is not a politician. One person being mentioned here is Olympic ice-skating champion Svetlana Zhurova, who is on United Russia’s candidate list in the Leningrad region. A United Russia source told Kommersant: “She’s a clever little thing, and a good speaker, which is unexpected in an athlete. Fresh blood!” Zhurova herself said: “I’m very flattered to hear that such rumors are circulating, but so far I haven’t heard about this from anyone other than the media.” Then again, United Russia’s list has quite a few interchangeable candidates of this kind, and the party has a broad range of choices.

The media have long been saying that Russian politics have become dull and predictable. According to Gazeta.ru, sensations and intrigues are being manufactured – and the volume of production may even expand, “but all these sensations and intrigues are practically worthless.”

“This is like adding garnish to the flavorless and completely non-nutritious meal known as the 2007 election campaign,” says Gazeta.ru. “A clever cook who’s forced to work with meat that is less than fresh will make an effort to cover it up with all kinds of spices and flavorings.”

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