Accomplishing it is not going to be easy

March 12 elections in Federation subjects became United Russia’s triumph. On the average, it polled 37% of votes – more than all other political parties together. What enabled the ruling party to score such a victory? Does the multi-party system have a future in Russia?

Higher role played by parties in politics and in the life of the country as such is one of the purposes of the political reform President Putin launched. Studies and opinion polls conducted by the VTsIOM show that accomplishing it is not going to be easy.

Russians do not care much about political parties as an institution. Opinion polls show that the existing party system is thoroughly distrusted. According to the poll run in January, only 19% of the respondents approve of the activities of political parties and 53% disapprove. Political parties are outsiders of public opinion, sharing this niche together with the Duma, law enforcement agencies, and trade unions.

No matter how low their opinion of political parties is, however, Russians stand for a multi-party system. Most respondents advocate the textbook model where two or three mass parties replace one another at the helm. Almost every third respondent suggested this arrangement. Seventeen per cent more believe that there should be many parties. They may even be small – it’s all right as long as they are active.

In the meantime, lots of Russians stand for a mono-party system (25%) or claim that Russia does not need political parties at all but needs bona fide leaders instead (20%). They are mostly elderly Russians, while youth and adults advocate political pluralism.

It is hardly surprising that most respondents VTsIOM sociologists approached support the party-enlargement measures. Between 50% and 60% of Russians approve of the 7% barrier for political parties in the federal parliamentary election, along with the requirements for numerical strength of parties (50,000 activists), and the ban on political alliances established for elections.

Judging by the latest studies, the task of enlargement of parties may be solved by the next election already even though not exactly in the manner most Russians expect. Had the parliamentary election taken place in February 2006, the next Duma would have included United Russia (40%) and perhaps LDPR and CPRF (each balancing on the 7% level). In other words, competition among two or three political parties of more or less equal political weight is out of the question in Russia as it is.

In the meantime, it stands to reason to assume that rearrangement of legislation pertaining to political parties is not going to have a truly profound effect on Russians’ attitude. Moreover, the underside of the tight administrative control over party life is becoming more and more difficult to ignore. Mass removal of certain political parties from regional elections is already affecting the population’s attitude with regard to their outcome. Russians’ and particularly Muscovites’ opinion of the removal of the Motherland from election of the Moscow municipal legislature is typical. Almost every third Russian and twice as many Muscovites are convinced that the lot of political parties should be sealed at polling stations and not in courtrooms.

In the meantime, the key reason behind the ebbing of the interest in party construction is on the surface. The party system in Russia is on its way to stop representing the interests of different strata of society. Abandoning their ideological sympathies and antipathies, voters’ motivation boils down to evaluation of the socioeconomic situation in the country and actions of the authorities on different levels including the presidential. All of that is making less and less adequate the party system based on ideological and political differences. Existence of strong political parties of the “left” or “right” flank of the political spectrum becomes practically impossible. And on the contrary, it is “interest parties” rather than “idea parties” that are needed.

The colossal gap between the ruling party and its political adversaries is usually ascribed to the level of society’s sympathies with the president that cannot help having an effect on United Russia’s own popularity. It is so to some extent, but only to some. There is a more fundamental reason why United Russia’s rating remains high and those of its political adversaries dwindle. Studies show certain changes in the correlation of previously “active” and “inert” strata that occurred in the last several years.

Back in the 1990’s, it was the least prosperous strata that were interested in politics (phenomenon of the so called “protest vote”). The tendency has reversed itself. Strata way down the hierarchic ladder are losing interest in politics. Either they vote “against everybody” or boycott the elections altogether. Russians with medium or high income are not particularly interested in politics either, and neither can they be called active supporters of the ruling party. All the same, United Russia has support from 52% of the respondents who evaluate their financial standing as fine and very fine, 44% of respondents who evaluate it as average, and 31% of the respondents appraising it as bad. Moreover, the majority of supporters of United Russia live in the provinces, mostly in medium and small townships. They are aged between 25 and 44. Most of them are not exactly prosperous. They have just made some money and their support of United Russia is like a deal – loyalty in return for non-interference.

Reaction of society to the situation, say, with cruelty in the barracks, machinations with housing projects, sentence to Oleg Scherbitsky (driver involved in the traffic accident where Altai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov was killed), etc. indicates that this majority may promptly change its mind and political preferences. And that it will probably do so unless the authorities stop acting against this majority’s interests.

There is also the opinion (debatable but fairly interesting all the same) that traditional political parties with fixed membership are becoming history, about to be replaced with some other forms of participation in politics and self-organization. In the meantime, chalking parties off as political fossils will be wrong yet. Studies show that mobilizational resources of political parties are considerable.

“Are you ready to participate in the work of a political party?” respondents were asked. Six per cent admitted that they were, 8% said they did not want formal membership but could become volunteers (participate in actions, collect signatures, and so on). Voting for the party in elections is the most acceptable variant of support for the majority of Russians. Thirty-five per cent of respondents chose it as the preferable form of participation in politics. In general, 50% of Russians are prepared to back a political party in whatever form, ranging from membership in it to voting for it. In the meantime, 41% of respondents would not support any party at all (14% do not see a party close to their convictions and views, and 27% fail to see any point in existence of political parties at all).

Problem of party leadership is also important, judging by opinion polls. Apart from Putin himself, 5 to 8 politicians have been in the focus of public attention for years now. Opinions polls indicate the growing need for new faces who would do more than hold forth on social justice, democracy, greatness of Russia, etc.

It is possible for Russian political parties to boost their clout with society. It requires a considerate strategy of party mobilization that will also include a search for new people, ideas, essences, and experiments with new forms of political self-organization. This is the only way of ensuring involvement of the new generation of Russians in politics.