The Duma campaign: how a fair election will serve Putin’s purposes

President Putin has decided to make some radical changes to how Russia’s entire electoral mechanism usually functions. He wants the Duma election to be as fair and honest as possible, with a maximally objective result to reflect what voters think of existing parties.

August is here – and I had predicted that Sergei Ivanov would be appointed prime minister on August 9, thus legitimizing him as the designated successor, the favorite in the presidential race.

I’m not retracting the forecast as such, since over the past month there haven’t been any indications of any alternative scenario. Moreover, Igor Ivanov’s unexpected resignation as Security Council secretary in July tends to confirm my predicted scenario – even though the direct reasons for that resignation were specific circumstantial considerations, not an intention to vacate the post for the person who will take it in 2008, after the new president’s inauguration.

President Vladimir Putin’s candidate for the presidency will be Sergei Ivanov, and his appointment as prime minister will be an unofficial nomination. Putin himself, after leaving office (but not leaving the Kremlin – a critical point), will become secretary of the Security Council, with greatly expanded powers. This post could be combined with official leadership of the State Council, but that’s a minor detail.

Yet this forecast doesn’t take account of the Duma election factor – especially the results of that election. And those results are by no means as predictable as many observers and party activists still tend to assume, for whatever reason – holding to the stereotyped opinion that the Kremlin wants a fully controllable Duma, so it will do all it can to ensure an absolute victory for United Russia.

Admittedly, this stereotype emerged for good reason; it’s not just a product of the imaginations of anti-Kremlin politicians and analysts. But there’s one thing that those politicians and analysts fail to take into account: the Kremlin is changing and developing – its current plans differ from the intentions it had two years ago – so the abovementioned stereotype is simply obsolete. The Kremlin – and primarily Putin himself – seem to be guided by entirely different instincts these days.

Of course, the Kremlin doesn’t want the new Duma to be entirely in opposition; but neither does it need complete obedience – which is often materially burdensome.

On the one hand, there is no need to fear that Duma seats will be filled by any substantial faction of rebels or ultra-oppositionists. The radical opposition has been utterly marginalized – partly due to the efforts of Kremlin political strategists, partly due to the opposition’s own political splits and alienation from the interests of significant voter groups.

On the other hand, if the Kremlin did need this election to produce a configuration determined by the Kremlin itself, why would it have replaced the entirely loyalist and highly skilled Alexander Veshnyakov as chairman of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC)? His replacement is Vladimir Churov: a neophyte, unfamiliar to the nomenklatura (especially in the regions), who is unlikely to master all the levers in the smoothly-functioning electoral mechanism by December. According to the stereotype’s logic, this replacement should not have happened. But it did happen! And there must be a reason for that.

In my view, the reason is that Putin has decided to make some radical changes to how Russia’s entire electoral mechanism usually functions. And how does it usually function? Obviously, according to the abovementioned stereotype: the Kremlin wants a controllable Duma with a specific party configuration and a majority of at least 50% for United Russia. Even if no such order is issued, CEC personnel and district electoral commission staff – loyal to both the Kremlin and regional leaders – will carry out the order anyway. In other words, an election with Veshnyakov as CEC chairman would have produced an unobjective result. And Putin isn’t interested in such a result.

Thus, Churov was appointed because the Kremlin considers him capable of ensuring that the Duma election is as fair and honest as possible, with a maximally objective result to reflect what voters think of existing parties.

The Kremlin wants a fair election. This is a somewhat surprising conclusion. It’s unexpected enough to break the paradigm of our perception of elections. It should also break the habitual campaigning patterns used by party leaders and activists – particularly those who believe that they and their parties are already guaranteed a specific number of Duma seats.

But I fear that those patterns won’t be broken; consequently, the configuration in the parliament after December 2 will take many parties by surprise. Incidentally, when Churov arranged a role-play simulation of elections at the CEC on August 7, it didn’t result in an absolute victory for United Russia, or even a relative victory. This is revealing: according to the erstwhile line of reasoning, now discarded by the Kremlin, the role-play result should have been just the opposite, sending a message to electoral commissions.

Why does the Kremlin want a fair election?

Some would say that the Kremlin simply wants an objective evaluation of the results of its party-building efforts. Others might assume that Putin wants to destroy any and all grounds for accusations (from the West) regarding election manipulation and distorted voting results. Strictly speaking, neither reason is entirely wrong; but I’m inclined to think that Putin, as president and a politician thinking of his own future, and the Kremlin, as an institution, simly want to know the truth – and believe it would be beneficial for parties and the citizenry to know that truth as well. This conclusion doesn’t involve any idealization of the Kremlin or Putin. In wanting things to turn out this way, they are being more pragmatic than the romantics from the For Honest Elections movement.

Why does Putin have a pragmatic interest in determining the objective configuration of voter preferences?

Firstly, of course, this will assess the results of efforts to create a party system.

Secondly, the process of building a party system will be diversified; Putin is well aware of all the dangers inherent in having one party (a highly bureaucratized party) hold a monopoly. Moreover, the state can’t keep on expending administrative resources to support one (or more) parties; the reverse process – a natural process – must come into effect, with the dominant party supporting the administration, rather than the administration enabling the party to remain dominant. And if a certain party is incapable of doing that, what use is it anyway?

Thirdly, after Putin leaves office, he will eventually have to decide whether to join a party, and choose which party he will rely on in his future political activities (perhaps the 2012 presidential election). Naturally, he won’t want to be tied down to a party which has no substantial political assets other than Putin himself. Thus, Putin really needs an objective assessment of real voter support for United Russia. And for this reason, presumably, he will strive to distance himself from any campaigning, even indirect campaigning, for United Russia in this year’s Duma election – although it won’t be easy for him to do so.

An official (or almost official) confirmation of each pro-Kremlin party as supporting one of the two successor candidates would be helpful here (United Russia for Dmitri Medvedev, naturally, and Just Russia for Sergei Ivanov). In that case, it would be easy for Putin to shrug off United Russia’s demands for endorsement by the incumbent. And the fact that the leading successor candidate is associated with the weaker party wouldn’t be too much of a problem; in the lead-up to the presidential election, there would be nothing to stop Putin indicating his preference almost openly, thus mobilizing voters who like him most to vote for the candidate he indicates.

Finally, the impression is that Putin doesn’t want to lose his popularity, even after he leaves office – especially if he intends to remain one of Russia’s most influential politicans, or even the most influential of all. But his popularity would be sure to suffer if voters see him stepping down (contrary to the will of the majority, who want him to stay on) and leaving Russia in the hands of a vague and incoherent successor or political party.

Thus, the scenario which is most likely at this stage, according to my predictions, could be substantially altered, depending on the campaign of autumn 2007 and the results of the December election – especially if the election outcome is unexpected. These alterations are unlikely to disrupt that scenario entirely; but we are sure to see some real (or almost real) public politics this autumn.

There’s one problem with a fair and honest election, and Kremlin strategists still seem to be puzzling over that problem. Such an election would guarantee representation in the Duma for United Russia, the Communist Party, and (almost certainly) Just Russia. The LDPR’s chances are looking very uncertain, but that’s not a problem. The problem is that the Union of Right Forces (SPS) has practically no chance of crossing the 7% threshold – but Putin and the Kremlin do need a liberal party in the Duma. I simply can’t imagine how it might be possible to get Yabloko or Civil Force into the Duma without using administrative resources (doing so would contradict Putin’s basic line of reasoning, and the task I believe he has set for Churov). Even the SPS itself seems incapble of such a feat unless it is provided with a springboard.

What might such a springboard entail, if not administrative resources? Large-scale use of television debates, broadcast nationwide, offer the only solution. If we do see such debates in this campaign, it will be further evidence that the Kremlin is abandoning stereotyped political behavior in the active phase of the election campaign.

So that’s the situation at present, as the first ten days of August draw to a close.

Lastly, this issue of Moskovskie Novosti includes some materials on August as a special month of Russia’s historical calendar. The experts we approached for comments say they don’t believe this August will bring any political upheavals or major events. In my view, they’re influenced by the stereotypes of the past: assuming that stability will prevent anything bad from happening, yet stability can’t be expected to produce anything good. This is both incorrect and unfair. It’s impossible to ignore that over the past two years, the Kremlin has been looking to the future in practically all areas, more and more often, and basing its policies on goals for the future. And it’s laughable to assume that although the Kremlin and Putin himself went to so much trouble to secure the 2014 Winter Olympics for Sochi (personally, I didn’t believe Sochi’s bid would succeed), they will continue with the old approach of relying on administrative resources in the parliamentary and presidential elections. This team doesn’t want to move from stability to stagnation; it hasn’t fulfilled all its ambitions yet.

Something very important is sure to happen in August. That forecast of mine remains in force. The well-wishers can’t be left without some suspense, after all.