Russia’s parties prepare for regional elections in October

A month from now, on October 8, parliamentary elections will be held in nine regions: Karelia, Tyva, Chuvashia, the Primorye territory, the Jewish autonomous region, the Lipetsk region, the Astrakhan region, the Novgorod region, and the Sverdlovsk region.

A month from now, on October 8, parliamentary elections will be held in nine regions: Karelia, Tyva, Chuvashia, the Primorye territory, the Jewish autonomous region, the Lipetsk region, the Astrakhan region, the Novgorod region, and the Sverdlovsk region. It’s already clear that the absolute winner in these elections will be the United Russia party. There will also be a battle between three parties which have declared their intention to merge: the Russian Party of Pensioners (RPP), the Russian Party of Life (RPL), and the Motherland (Rodina) party. This autumn’s election outcomes should make it clear which of these three will serve as the basis for the Kremlin’s new party.

It wasn’t too long ago that regions decided for themselves when to hold their elections. In summer 2005, however, the Duma wrote and passed a number of amendments to federal electoral legislation, setting two common voting days for all elections in Russia, apart from federal presidential and parliamentary elections. The two days are the second Sunday in March and the second Sunday in October. The first regional elections according to this new system took place on March 12, showing that the innovation makes life even more complicated for opposition parties.

United Russia competing against itself

The undisputed leader in current regional campaigns is United Russia. According to experts, the primary concern for United Russia functionaries right now is how large the party’s winning margin will be.

Alexei Titkov, senior analyst at the Regional Politics Institute: “United Russia is competing with itself, aiming to match the benchmark figures that regional branch leaders promised the party’s federal leadership before the campaign began. Although United Russia is the undisputed favorate in all these regions, the campaign will be hard for it, since it’s no easy task to scrape up the missing percentages.”

In order to consider this season’s regional campaigns successful, United Russia should get around 40% of the vote, preferably. “At the federal election in 2003 we got around 37% of the vote, and in the regional elections last March we came close to 40%, and now it’s important for us to see a steady positive trend in this regard,” says United Russia spokesman Leonid Goryainov. But United Russia managed to exceed 40% in only three regions last March.

The real left

Oksana Goncharenko, Political Conjuncture Center analyst: “The party system format developing in Russia today entails one dominant party plus a number of second-echelon parties which make up the managed opposition within the system. The existence of those parties does not threaten the system, but they demand corrections to certain areas of the state’s policy course.”

In the March 2006 regional elections, the Communist Party (CPRF) came second to United Russia in most regions, although the CPRF’s position was not very confident in some cases. Analysts note that the strongest regions for the CPRF in the current campaign are the Astrakhan and Lipetsk regions, along with Chuvashia. And these are also the regions where the CPRF is under the most pressure from the authorities.

Oleg Kulikov, CPRF Central Committee secretary for information and analysis: “Our candidates are receiving threats, accompanied by demands to withdraw from the race. This has happened in Lipetsk and Chuvashia. This particularly concerns candidates who work in the state sector: teachers or doctors who are summoned by their bosses and forced, under threat of dismissal, to write statements about their withdrawal from the elections.”

The CPRF names “the continual presence of United Russia and its leaders on television” as one of the basic problems encountered by the opposition in regional elections. Opposition politicians say they find it practically impossible to get any airtime.

The "relevant left" and ideological thorns

The “relevant left” has problems of its own. Although the leaders of the RPL, the RPP, and Motherland have made the decision to merge, the parties are still contesting this October’s elections separately. “We have withdrawn our candidate lists in each other’s favor in some regions. There are places where one of the other parties is stronger, and other places where we are stronger,” says a spokesperson for the RPL. The RPP press service assured us that the three parties will not interfere with each other during this season’s campaign.

Indeed, the three “relevant left” parties have coordinated their actions in some regions. The RPL has withdrawn in Motherland’s favor in the Astrakhan region, for example. But this certainly isn’t happening everywhere.

Alexei Titov: “The three parties will be competing with each other. This is inevitable, and their central leadership has accepted it. The October elections will be kind of a preliminary contest, determining which of the three parties will be in the most advantageous position during further unification negotiations.”

Experts note that the RPP has a fair chance of taking fourth place in the October elections – after United Russia, the CPRF, and the LDPR. This holds true even though the RPP’s election performance has deteriorated since it lost its former leader, Duma member Valery Gartung. Motherland is in a similar position. After its former leader, Dmitri Rogozin, fell out of favor with the Kremlin, Motherland was disqualified in seven out of eight regional elections last March.

Analysts are also noting the RPL’s ambiguous position.

Okasana Goncharenko: “The problem of using administrative resources in the elections is arising already. Above all, this concerns the RPL. It is frequently attempting to position itself as the second Kremlin party. Consequently, the regional elites – accustomed to supporting whoever is strongest – are somewhat disoriented in this situation.”

This happened in the Sverdlovsk region, for example. On August 21, the regional election commission denied registration to the RPL branch in that region. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, the RPL leader, described this as a glaring example of electoral legislation being applied selectively in the interests of United Russia. As Goncharenko notes, it appears that the RPL isn’t competing with the CPRF, as planned; instead, it’s striving to take votes away from United Russia – contrary to the initial idea behind this project.

It’s worth noting that opposition parties have also found a rather good way of fighting administrative resources. Since regional leaders are willingly agreeing to head United Russia’s candidate lists, opponents are sending in their Duma members to promote their candidate lists. In some regions, candidate lists are headed by party leaders: for example, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky heads that party’s list in the Sverdlovsk region. Duma member Sergei Baburin, leader of the People’s Will party, has gone further than anlyone else: heading all regional candidate lists simultaneously. Baburin himself explains this decision as follows: “We’re a fairly major thorn in the side for United Russia – and for its clones as well.”

The rich are winning

The March campaigns showed that the right-wing opposition is in the worst situation of all. Neither the Yabloko party nor the Union of Right Forces (URF) managed to get past the threshold in any of those regional elections.

The URF has decided not to go into the October elections on its own.

URF press secretary Lilia Dubovaya: “We counted up our forces and decided that in those regions we lack strong branches capable of getting past the 7% threshold. We’ll take part in the regional elections scheduled for next spring.”

Yabloko is involved in three of this autumn’s elections: in Karelia, the Sverdlovsk region, and Primorye. Actually, Yabloko’s candidate list in the Sverdlovsk region includes several URF members. The right-wing parties attribute this situation to the high cost of campaigning. Since the common voting days (in March and October) were introduced, it’s become clear that only the largest and wealthiest parties can afford to run several election campaigns simultaneously.

The right-wing parties also say that election commissions are biased.

Galina Mihaleva, head of Yabloko’s policy directorate: “What is permitted for United Russia is forbidden for us. In the Sverdlovsk region, United Russia has its billboards all over the place – while we only put up some small posters. Yet we have received a reprimand from the election commission, while United Russia gets away with it.”

Oksana Goncharenko: “The problem for the right-wing parties lies in their own difficulties with ideology and organization. The ideas they have proposed in the past haven’t found enough support among voters – but they’re having some trouble coming up with any new ideas.”