President Putin could dissolve the Duma as soon as this autumn

While the guessing-game continues with regard to President Putin’s successor, few have asked about the future of the legislative branch. Meanwhile, there is every indication that the Kremlin is extremely concerned about the composition of the next Duma.

Some analysts described President Vladimir Putin’s period in office as a period of “stagnation.” It has only one thing in common with Brezhnev-era stagnation: the absence of any significant political upheavals in Russia. Even when senior state officials are dismissed, this usually turns out to be nothing more than a horizontal reshuffle. Putin doesn’t throw away his personnel; to all appearances, he’s guided by the principle that it’s better to keep well-known political figures on a short leash (that is, in state service) than to dismiss them entirely and see them turn into political opponents. A vivid example is Vladimir Yakovlev, former governor of St. Petersburg: although many media articles have testified that Putin clearly dislikes him, Yakovlev still remains a Category A official with a Cabinet portfolio. And Putin himself has indicated that Vladimir Ustinov, recently dismissed from the post of prosecutor general, will soon be appointed to another post of national significance. In contrast, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov felt unwanted after his dismissal – and now he’s firmly in the opposition camp. If the Kremlin had offered Kasyanov any reasonably significant job, he would have remained a loyalist.

All the same, President Putin’s latest statements indicate that in politics, as in mathematics, there’s an exception to every rule. At a recent news conference in Shanghai, Putin said once again that he doesn’t want to tamper with the Russian Constitution by seeking a third term – but he couldn’t resist adding some suspense to the successor question. Politicians, political analysts, and everyone else who follows socio-political processes in Russia are now engrossed in unraveling the mystery of Putin’s “dark horse” successor.

For some reason, however, no one has asked Putin recently about the future of the legislative branch. The Constitution empowers the president to dissolve the lower house, the Duma, by decree at any time he chooses.

The Duma elections are scheduled for 2007, anticipating the presidential election in 2008. These two events are clearly linked: the political stability of the past few years is directly dependent on the dialogue between the legislative and executive branches of government. In contrast to his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin enjoys practically perfect working conditions: two-thirds of the parliament is made up of United Russia members, who support every single one of Putin’s legislative initiatives. This has even led to criticism of United Russia for being “politically spineless,” with allegations that the Duma has turned into a place where any bill submitted by the Kremlin or the Cabinet will be passed without a second glance. The accuracy of this claim is not the issue here. What’s important is that President Putin has a powerful, cooperative, and effective legislative mechanism for carrying out socio-economic and political reforms. Such a situation was beyond the wildest dreams of Yeltsin, who had the impeachment sword of Damocles hanging over his head on several occasions.

Putin himself has admitted that ever since he took the helm, he’s been thinking about who will continue the work he has begun. He’s unlikely to have overlooked the important quesion of the kind of Duma his successor will have to work with.

Operation 2007

In fact, the record of electoral laws and amendments indicates that the Kremlin is extremely concerned about the composition of the next Duma. Single-mandate districts have been abolished; from now, on, Duma members will be elected via party lists only. Strict requirements for parties have been imposed: they must have at least 50,000 members nationwide, with branches in almost every region. What’s more, the Duma voted last week to abolish the “against all candidates” option. The explanation provided for all these electoral innovations sounds convincing: purely decorative fly-by-night parties should disappear (eventually, only five to ten parties will remain), and citizens should develop greater party awareness; people with a dubious past or present should be prevented from becoming legislators. All this sounds wonderful. As a result, however, the next Duma will clearly be very similar to the present Duma: United Russia holding the majority, with the Communist Party (CPRF) getting a few seats and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) maintaining its numbers. The only question is whether the right-wing parties will be represented, and whether Motherland (Rodina), now split, will manage to keep its seats.

But there’s a significant danger in the next election. United Russia presently holds an overwhelming majority in parliament – thanks to the fact that many Duma members who were elected in single-mandate districts subsequently joined the United Russia faction. In the next election, analysts predict that United Russia will get 40% of the vote at most, even under the most favorable circumstances; therefore, it will no longer have a constitutional majority.

Is this good or bad? Depends how you look at it.

On the one hand, the next president and parliament won’t be able to amend the Constitution with no trouble at all – such bills require a two-thirds majority vote. United Russia does control the necessary number of votes now, so in theory it could tailor the Constitution to suit itself. Were it not for President Putin’s pronouncement that the Constitution is sacred, no one could prevent United Russia from doing so, from the legal standpoint. With two-thirds of the Duma, the present-day United Russia faction could override a presidential veto – a power that Putin has never exercised. If Putin’s successor turns out to be less squeamish about the Constitution, he won’t be able to amend it with the support of one party only; he’ll have to reach agreement with other parties.

On the other hand, the Duma will develop coalitions, thus creating a system of checks and balances, with all the consequences that entails.

And now we reach the crux of the matter: might President Putin decide to dissolve the Duma and hold an early parliamentary election, and what would be the political calculations involved in that? Let’s imagine, hypothetically, that the parliamentary election takes place on schedule – but produces a configuration of forces that isn’t quite convenient for the Kremlin. In that situation, dissolving the Duma in the lead-up to the presidential election would doom Russia to political chaos. Moreover, electing a new legislature almost simultaneously with the election of a new president could lead to confusion, if only temporarily.

Quite a few arguments could be made in favor of holding the parliamentary election early. Some analysts believe that the Duma could be dissolved as soon as this autumn.