Parties prepare for nine regional legislature elections on October 8

A relatively calm August in Russian politics – a happy rarity, by our measures – seems about to segue into a hot autumn. Campaigning for the regional legislature elections on October 8 has only just started, but some important trends are already evident.

A relatively calm August in Russian politics – a happy rarity, by our measures – seems about to segue into a hot autumn. Campaigning for the regional legislature elections on October 8 has only just started; not all parties have released their candidate lists, and the usual campaign advertising hasn’t yet moved into the channels familiar to voters and political consultants – but some important trends are already evident.

The upcoming regional elections are fundamentally important for the United Russia party, which is aiming to go into 2007 without any losses and step up its preparations for the Duma election. United Russia means to claim the place of “first party” in any version of a two-party configuration, and to do that it needs to win at least half the seats in each region on October 8. The responsibilities that United Russia is assuming could end up playing a cruel trick on it. But the stronger role of parties in Russia’s contemporary political system, and the transition to proportional voting (although a combined system will still apply on October 8), essentially leave United Russia with no right to make any mistakes. The abolition of the “against all candidates” option makes the issue of voter turnout more acute – and it’s long been a problem for leaders at all levels in the regions.

United Russia considers the Communist Party (CPRF) its chief rival. The CPRF’s positions are fairly strong (especially in economically backward regions); CPRF voters turn out faithfully for every election, voting not with their hearts, but with their faded party membership cards. Moreover, United Russia’s candidate lists are headed by regional leaders; and in this autumn’s election cycle the party will run into the problem of declining public confidence in regional leaders. Thus, one of United Russia’s major advantages may well turn out to be its Achilles’ heel.

The recently-announced merger of the Russian Party of Life (RPL) and the Motherland (Rodina) party is working against them so far. The two parties will go into this October’s elections separately – and voters are sure to question the future party legitimacy of RPL or Motherland lawmakers elected in this way. RPL leader Sergei Mironov and Motherland leader Alexander Babakov are unlikely to have enough resources to overcome this problem; all the same, they will take part to some extent in the battle for left-wing votes. So will the Russian Patriots, the Agrarian Party, the Russian Party of Pensioners, People’s Will – and, of course, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which has high hopes for this autumn’s regional campaigns. The perennial antics of LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirnovsky are becoming less effective; and given the upcoming RPL-Motherland merger, the LDPR can be expected to fight very hard for regional legislature seats.

The left wing is crowded with parties aspiring to the role of “second party” – and this is linked to the general mood among voters, many of whom remember the default of 1998 all too clearly. Social justice is the basic trend in this autumn’s elections – and whichever party manages to claim that area first can count on some relatively respectable results, if not outright victory.

It’s not only the regional configuration of forces in the lead-up to the Duma campaign that will largely depend on the October 8 election cycle. This autumn’s elections have some even more important subtext. Now that the “against all candidates” option has been abolished, and the new principle for “electing” regional leaders has been introduced, and new principles for local government are being implemented – in other words, now that political inertia is being broken, in substantial if not very noticeable ways – these elections should show the extent to which Russia’s political system is ready for “life after 2008.” And being ready for that is far more important than the distribution of seats in regional parliaments.