Russia’s political parties start making campaign promises

Election years usually open with promises being handed out. It’s a well-developed technique; political parties readily move into routine campaigning. The “leftist” have always used populist promises; but until now, “right-wing” parties had resisted such temptations.

Election years usually open with promises being handed out. It’s a well-developed technique; political parties readily move into routine campaigning. According to the reasoning used by assorted “leftist” parties, all they need to do is present “the people” with an outline of a bright future – and voters will rush to support them. Until now, “right-wing” parties had resisted such temptations, basing their policy programs on human rights and land ownership.

The Communist Party (CPRF) established the tradition which has led to all manner of populists being labeled as “leftist.” For the past 15 years, quite successfully, it has been promising to raise wages, pensions, benefits, and so on. More recently, the Stabilization Fund has been added to the CPRF’s arsenals: our “leftists” are keen to hand out this money to all comers, right now. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and smaller-caliber parties (People’s Will, Patriots of Russia) operate in the same format, promising (as best they can) to turn Russia into some sort of cross between Paradise and the Soviet Union.

All these allegedly left-wing organizations can hardly come up with any surprises for voters. If anything is surprising, it’s the fact that they have suddenly acquired some neighbors: Just Russia and the Union of Right Forces (SPS). In the March round of regional legislature elections, these parties slotted smoothly into the ranks of promise-makers.

It was, perhaps, predictable that Just Russia would come up with absurdities like “raising the average pension to 7,000 rubles a month” (its campaign slogan in St. Petersburg); although it’s hard to understand how they intend to go about raising the “average pension” to that level. And now it’s even harder to understand exactly who will do it.

But the real surprise came from the SPS; only a couple of years ago, this would have been a nightmare scenario. The semi-moribund SPS went into the March elections with a policy program entitled “Completing Construction” (Dostroika), written by political consultant Anton Bakov, and a selection of slogans familiar from CPRF and LDPR campaigns. And in some regions, the SPS started competing with the CPRF and Just Russia on equal terms. Nikita Belykh and Boris Nemtsov started talking of what might almost be described as socialism. To see Anatoly Chubais’s party using slogans like these – that’s the height of surrealism.

“Heading for socialism” – the course proposed by Sergei Mironov and becoming the political mainstream – actually bears little resemblance to reality. Ordinary European-style socialism thrives in countries where “leftist” parties appeal to intellectuals and the middle class, not to an abstract notion of “the people.” Their primary focus is on social guarantees and benefits, not raising wages and pensions. Russia has already experienced one attempt to build socialism based on perverted interpretations of what “workers and peasants” wanted; the results weren’t very successful. Yet now we see Just Russia, and the SPS, and the Communists along with the LDPR, all tirelessly repeating the same mistake.

The notorious “third term” is likely to become one of the most tempting populist ideas in the upcoming election campaign (Mironov has started using it already). The chorus of those who are trying to persuade President Putin to stay on threatens to merge into an indistinguishable loyalist buzz.

This acceleration of promise-making hysteria may hold the secret to a successful performance in December by United Russia and the newly-formed Civil Force party. If these parties can manage to present voters with “real achievements,” like those used by United Russia to win regional elections in October and March, their performance may exceed expectations. As promises become larger and larger, voters will grow tired of populism; and victory might go to those who are bold enough to promise nothing.