Predictions for the Duma election campaign

The main focus of suspense in the upcoming election is the correlation of forces within the “Putin coalition.” The major political battles are most likely to unfold between pro-Putin forces, rather than between the Putinists and the opposition.

With six months to go before the Duma election, now is a good time to make the first approximate forecast about the election outcome.

This election will involve fewer parties than any previous election: between nine and 12 parties. The others will either join their more successful colleagues or stay out of the election entirely. Given that the representation threshold is now set at 7% of the vote, it’s likely that in the next Duma, as in the present Duma, four parties will have their own factions: United Russia, Just Russia, the Communist Party (CPRF), and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). The two pro-Putin parties – United Russia and Just Russia – will get around 60-65% of the vote between them; the two opposition parties – the CPRF and the LDPR – will get around 20% of the vote between them. No more than 20% of the vote will go to various parties that fail to make it past the 7% threshold. This is all we can say for certain at this point.

The main focus of suspense in the upcoming election is the correlation of forces within the “Putin coalition.” The participants have little in common beyond their support for President Putin: different leaders, different elite factions backing them, different policies and “ideological cocktails.” As long as Putin is in power, his supporters are consolidated by their pro-presidential platform: a strong state, sovereignty, stability. However, some new political forces are gradually taking shape on that common platform: left-wing Putinists, right-wing Putinists, and so on. And the major political battles are most likely to unfold between these pro-Putin forces, rather than between the Putinists and the opposition.

Opinion polls indicate that United Russia is substantially more popular than Just Russia: a ratio of three to one. This is due to more media coverage, accumulated political weight, a strong network of regional branches, and superiority in organizational, governmental, and financial resources. United Russia is saving up a number of strong moves for the active phase of the election campaign: a form of “primaries” scheduled for this summer, and the slogan of ensuring that Putin’s policy course remains in place after 2008. This party has set itself the objective of winning 45% of the vote, and it is capable of achieving that target. Once the votes cast for minor parties are redistributed, this would give United Russia over 50% of Duma seats, and enable it to retain the constitutional majority in coalition with Just Russia.

But Just Russia has its own advantages: novelty, Sergei Mironov’s hard-hitting style, and a clever choice of rhetoric in presenting ideas. Many of its proposals sound very appealing to the public: a third term for Putin, bringing back socialism, spending the Stabilization Fund, and so on. In the election campaign process, this more dynamic political force could put some pressure on its powerful heavyweight opponent. The question is: how much pressure? The answer to that question will determine the correlation of forces within the Putin coalition, and its degree of unity, and the points of emphasis in the next government’s economic policies.

The second interesting subject in this election is rivalry on the left. All parties are trying to play on the socialist field – from Just Russia to the Union of Right Forces (SPS).

So far, Just Russia is managing to use the leftist trend in public opinion to conquer some electoral ground. But the rise in left-wing attitudes could end up having the opposite effect: voters might go for the “historical” left – the CPRF. Even more radical forces might also be successful – national-socialist groups like Great Russia, led by Dmitri Rogozin. It would be in Just Russia’s interests to add some variety to political discourse, introducing other currently-relevant topics.

The somewhat limited liberal-democratic flank is developing a battle of its own. One point of suspense here focuses on whether any party to the right of United Russia can win representation in the Duma. There is some demand for such a force. A significant number of voters (up to 20% of the total electorate) hold liberal and pro-democracy views. By no means all of them are prepared to vote for United Russia; many have their old favorites (the SPS and Yabloko), or are looking at the new players on that field (Civil Force).

Of all the liberal forces, the SPS has the strongest chance of making it into the Duma; but even for this party, the 7% threshold seems too high. And no one has managed to unite liberal voters as yet. They are not susceptible to the herd instinct, and often act contrary to the scenarios set up by political consultants. Voters in this group are usually doing well for themselves, with no pressing problems motivating them to vote (and the concept of party discipline is entirely alien to them). The SPS is trapped: the only way to expand its voter support base is by abandoning some of its principles and altering its policy program to include populist proposals targeted at older voters with lower incomes. This would be an effective move, but it also carries a risk of splitting the party and destroying its liberal identity – so it might be blocked by the party’s long-term leaders.

A number of new parties have been created especially for this election campaign. Will any of them make it into the Duma?

In the last Duma election, the Motherland (Rodina) bloc was the joker in the pack. This time, a similar role may be played by Civil Force (Mikhail Barshchevsky) on the liberal flank and Great Russia (Dmitri Rogozin and Andrei Saveliev) on the national-socialist flank. Electoral legislation has changed greatly; there aren’t too many vacancies for newcomers in the spectrum of ideas and politics; their financial and media capabilities are also unknown. Competition within electoral segments is intense (Great Russia’s main rival is the LDPR, while Civil Force is challenging the SPS and Yabloko). Only a non-trivial and ultra-effective campaign can bring a new party into the Duma. Otherwise, the newcomers will play a negative role for their respective cohorts of voters: failing to make it into the Duma themselves, while also preventing the success of their ideologically similar rivals. In that case, the national-socialists and the right-wing liberals will once again find themselves unrepresented in the Duma.

Another important factor: the extent to which the election campaign and its results are perceived as legitimate by the public. I’m talking about internal legitimacy: Russia has moved beyond the stage when “foreign teachers” had the moral authority to set democracy exams for us. Two circumstances can ensure voter confidence in the election outcome. Firstly, the announced results should correspond to the public’s expectations. At present, people expect United Russia to win, and its partners in the Duma (with far fewer seats) to be Just Russia, the CPRF, and the LDPR. Voters don’t expect any other parties to make it into the Duma. The second condition for legitimacy is voter turnout. Low turnout poses a threat to the political order: in a country where democratic traditions are young and confidence in political institutions is low, it becomes crucially important to ensure that the majority of the population participates in the procedure of electing the authorities.

A comparison of opinion poll results and the outcomes of recent regional elections enables us to assume that voter turnout won’t drop below 45%. It could be higher, but that would require coordinated efforts by all election participants and the new leadership of the Central Electoral Commission to make the electoral process more transparent, make elections more competitive, and increase voter confidence in the electoral system’s institutions.

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