The outlook for Russia’s new two-party system

No one has done more than parties and politicians themselves to destroy public confidence in parties and politicians over the past 15 years of post-Soviet development. Now, at last, Russia is attempting to create a working model of a two-party system.

A poll done by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM) indicates that one in five respondents in our democratic country agrees with the statement that “Russia needs leaders, not parties,” while one in four agrees that Russia needs only one “national ruling party.” It’s this combined 45% of the population that represents the main obstacle to the development of a multi-party system. Yet it’s very hard to blame such people for the fact that their views don’t permit Russia to escape from the Soviet swamp of pervasive yesmanship. That’s because no one has done more than parties and politicians themselves to destroy public confidence in parties and politicians over the past 15 years of post-Soviet development.

“A serious analysis of the state of Russia’s political system shows that it can be described as critical,” says Public Chamber member Alexander Chadayev. “Party politics is only a formality. Parties cooperate willingly with only one institution: the federal and regional authorities. In other words, parties are turning into lobby groups.”

Consequently, voters, most of whom have long since ceased believing any of the ideological incantations chanted by party high priests, tend to support the party that has by far the greatest lobbying power. Besides, this is so convenient for citizens, two-thirds of whom trust Russia’s one and only politician – President Vladimir Putin – who is also supported by the very same party. So is it a vicious circle, and are we naturally returning to our traditional condition: autocracy and one-party rule? Many would like to do that, perhaps. Unfortunately, however, that one person around whom the whole Russian political system revolves is against the idea.

“…The shortcomings of our party system are particularly noticeable against the backdrop of centuries-old traditions of parliamentarianism and multi-party systems in other countries. A weak government finds it advantageous to have weak parties, since it is more peaceful and comfortable to work according to the rules of political bargaining. But a strong government has an interest in strong rivals. Political competition is a prerequisite for any serious dialogue about the development of our state. Russia needs parties that have mass support and solid credibility. It does not need any more bureaucratic parties that cling to the authorities or substitute for them. Past experience shows – we have seen this over the last few years – that such parties wither instantly on being moved from hot-house conditions to a competitive environment.”

That was a quote from the first of President Putin’s annual addresses to parliament: explaining the goals that he set for himself, his administration, and the nation straight after being elected in 2000.

Six years later, one of the questions being pondered by analysts is whether the conditions of coexistence for United Russia and the Russian Party of Life (RPL) can be considered a “competitive environment.” Officially, Putin isn’t playing any role in this process of “growing a second leg” – apart from his image, used in the campaign ads of both parties.

Particular individuals aside, however, the RPL’s move into the foreground represents the first attempt at creating a stable two-party system, even if it’s slightly adjusted for certain peculiarities in Russian politics. And rather than criticizing the strategists behind this for their “two-legged” methods, we might criticize them for having taken so long to make this move. This isn’t really a question of ideals; in those terms, the two-party model is considered to have proven its worth. The point is that one large party isn’t capable of providing insurance against upheavals in the administration changeover process. This is a problem for those who wish to retain power, and for all who are in some way dependent on the authorities. But if there are at least two parties gravitating towards center, this provides a substantial safety cushion – for more than one election cycle, if we look further ahead.

Our high-ranking Kremlin sources confirm that the objective being set for these two parties is to assemble a constitutional majority in the next Duma. Their roles were sketched out some time ago, back when United Russia was advised to abandon the idea of growing “wings” – especially a left wing. Much as this might disappoint Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, it’s United Russia that will represent the right wing in the next election (although with a strong tilt towards the center). The current “two-legged” construct is drawing quite a lot of criticism, but some of the experts we approached for comments say it can’t be described as being created from nothing at all.

Political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin: “I wouldn’t entirely deny that it’s a real, full-fledged system. It’s real in the sense that it reflects the real interests of real influence groups. In the Yeltsin era we had parties that didn’t reflect the interests of influence groups – they reflected the moods of voters, or rather, the value orientations of voters: democrats, communists, and so on. People were divided according to their understanding of ideals, not their understanding of interests. But now the two main parties have a conscious political interest. Yes, part of it consists in the fact that the battle for property is fought via the battle for the parliament, but in principle, this isn’t all that different from the situation in the rest of the developed world.”

In this sense, Russia’s party system really isn’t all that different from the established systems which are regarded as standard-setters. “Defending the interests of voters” – if “voters” are defined as everyone who puts a ballot-paper into a box – is largely an abstraction for all parties worldwide. It is actually done by defending the interests of economic and business structures (including state-owned structures) – and they, in turn, pay taxes, provide jobs, and provide opportunities for doing things like discussing the fate of animals on the brink of extinction.

There’s only one problem for both of the Kremlin’s parties. Their existence is unimaginable in the hypothetical event that Putin vanishes from the political landscape; they are both focused on an individual, not an idea. Then again, all analysts agree that Putin is most unlikely to vanish. In their view, his decisive influence on domestic politics will continue after 2008.

So if RPL leader Sergei Mironov’s supporters meet with success in their party-building efforts, and if their intraspecific battle with United Russia doesn’t destroy all the good they are trying to do separately for ordinary citizens, we’ll end up with a two-party system surrounded by several “old” and powerless ideological structures like the Communist Party and Yabloko. That is the outlook for the next few years, at least. It will provide sufficient time to work out whether all of us really do need this kind of political construct.