Politicians respond to rumors of early parliamentary elections

Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov has speculated that Duma elections could be held in 2006 rather than in 2007, saying that this is what the Kremlin wants. Oddly enough, many politicians have taken Kasyanov’s word for it and launched urgent campaign preparations.

All summer, Duma members and political analysts were talking off the record about the possibility of the next federal elections being rescheduled. But the early campaign “announcement” was made by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov. In an interview on REN TV, he speculated that the parliamentary elections could be held next year rather than in 2007, saying that this is what the Kremlin wants. Oddly enough, many politicians have taken Kasyanov’s word for it and launched urgent campaign preparations. And Kasyanov himself has anticipated events even further, becoming the first politician to say that he intends to run for president in 2008. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is promising to keep Kasyanov out of the presidential race, and doesn’t even want to discuss the idea of early elections. State officials are tired of numerous and senseless hypothetical scenarios; politicians are tired of stagnation, and the prospect of another two years of it seems unendurable.

All this certainly didn’t start in the Kremlin – the idea appeared out of thin air. Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, wrote an article back in July about the possibility of early Duma elections.

According to Makarenko, there are some entirely objective grounds for holding early elections. In his opinion, the whole problem is that those in power are afraid: “Obviously, our political mainstream can’t imagine life without Putin. It can’t grasp the concept, either rationally or emotionally. If Putin really means what he says about not seeking a third term in office, what will the United Russia party do? Without Putin, it’s no party at all.” In other words, United Russia needs to entrench itself in government before the Putin era ends. If the elections are held as scheduled, in late 2007 – soon before Putin steps down – United Russia might lose.

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, explains this as follows: “United Russia gets half of Putin’s support rating. If Putin’s rating is 70%, United Russia has 35%; if Putin has 50%, United Russia has 25%.”

At present, support for United Russia is around 40%. As Makarenko explains, however, by 2007 Putin will be different – he’ll be on his way out. So United Russia needs to get itself re-elected, quietly and calmly, “and when the successor is brought out on stage, United Russia will swear allegiance to him.”

Kasyanov claims that he’s simply guessed the Kremlin’s plans. He says he realized that the election campaign had begun after watching the recent speech in which Vladimir Putin promised to deliver substantial pay increases for state-sector doctors, teachers, and academics and solve the housing problem. During Kasyanov’s time as prime minister, it was accepted practice to distribute such generous gifts during a campaign period. Therefore, Kasyanov concludes that the elections will take place a year early: in late 2006.

But no one believes what Kasyanov says about deducing all this on his own. Everyone assumes that he still retains special sources of information about the Kremlin’s plans. Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky says: “Structures controlled by Vladislav Surkov have been spreading these leaks for almost a year now, ever since last autumn.”

Some political parties and Duma members have accepted the prospect of early elections as inevitable and started making preparations. The Communist Party (CPRF) is taking the rumors more seriously than others. CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov told us that his party will be fully armed – “completely ready” – next year. Meanwhile, he intends to do some investigating of his own: studying the classified part of the federal budget, since he claims it already contains funding for holding early elections. CPRF member Oleg Smolin supports Zyuganov: “Many sources confirm that early elections are a real prospect. And there are three other pieces of evidence in favor of this: new electoral legislation has been passed hastily, United Russia has already assigned its members to new electoral groups, and the president is being lavish with his social policy promises.”

Nikita Belykh, the young leader of the Union of Right Forces (URF), a party that was unsuccessful in the last Duma elections, views the prospect of early elections as a threat. “This is due to the political elite’s natural interest in retaining power after Putin’s second term. The Kremlin wants to control the representative government body – the Duma – permanently, not only at present.” Belykh also maintains that the passage of time is not working in United Russia’s favor: “I don’t see anything that might boost United Russia’s voter support rating. Its electoral capacities are falling sharply.” Therefore, says Belykh, it would be better for the URF to have the Duma elections take place on schedule.

But the URF, according to Belykh, is continuing to prepare for elections in 2007 rather than 2006: attempting to join forces with other democratic parties and build up its regional branches network. Belykh says: “If the elections do take place in 2006, we would have to call a halt to party-building and regional elections, in favor of generating slogans and policy programs.”

Then again, there could be some legal problems with organizing early elections. Constitutional Court officials confirmed to us that the Duma can only be disbanded in two circumstances: if it passes a motion of no confidence in the government twice within three months, or if it refuses three times to endorse a prime minister nominated by the president.

“Still, various scenarios are possible,” says Mikhail Barshchevsky, the Cabinet’s representative in the higher courts. “For example, dismissing the government and nominating a prime minister whom the Duma is certain to reject. Or let United Russia faction members start resigning from the Duma en masse – replacing them would require by-elections in each individual district, essentially amounting to new Duma elections.”

Given that Putin made regional leaders appointed rather than elected a year ago, without anyone seeing this as unconstitutional, there is no doubt that a loophole in the Constitution can be found for disbanding the Duma as well. “If it becomes necessary to break up the Duma, it will be done,” says Dmitri Oreshkin from the Mercator Group.

United Russia remains unfazed. “What nonsense,” said several United Russia members, declining to comment further.

The Motherland (Rodina) party is also calm. “In the present negative situation, Surkov would be crazy to hold early elections,” says Motherland member Oleg Shein. “But he is a fairly balanced, pragmatic person.” Shein maintains that before holding elections, the authorities will have to alleviate the consequences of monetization, try to implement local government reforms as painlessly as possible, and introduce the Housing Code successfully.

LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky doesn’t believe it either: “Everything will take place on schedule. And Kasyanov is an enemy of Russia.”

Political analyst Andrei Ryabov says that only one small group in the Putin administration is spreading rumors of early elections. This group is seeking to provoke a false start to the election campaign, with the aim of speeding up a solution to the Year 2008 Problem.

All the same, the exodus from the Duma has already begun: many members have decided to “reduce their status” voluntarily by running for the Moscow municipal legislature and taking part in the subsequent distribution of Yuri Luzhkov’s legacy. At any rate, this is better than sitting in the Duma and waiting while the Kremlin decides your fate.