What we can expect from the Duma election campaign

The chief point of suspense in this political season is whether the presidential successor will be identified during the Duma campaign. The second point of suspense is whether this election will bring us any closer to a two-party system.

The presidential decree launching the Duma campaign wasn’t published officially until three days after it was signed. Better late than never; this means that the parties will be allowed to start their battle from October 5.

The chief point of suspense in this political season is whether the presidential successor will be identified during the Duma campaign. Let’s not forget that Putin himself developed into a political heavyweight during the Duma campaign of 1999.

What form should we expect the successor revelation to take? We might find out on October 1, when the United Russia party’s congress announces who will head its candidate list; the second and third slots on that list have already been taken by the regulars, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov and Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu.

In effect, there is only one contender for first place: Senior Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who didn’t just happen to turn up at a congress of United Russia supporters in Krasnogorsk. All he needs now is the green light from Putin, automatically confirming his successor prerogatives.

Here’s how this scenario might develop. Let’s assume that Ivanov heads the candidate list and leads United Russia to a convincing victory. Putin would then announce that he regards the Duma election outcome as expressing the people’s confidence in United Russia and the person at the head of its candidate list. Everything would look as if the successor has been chosen by the people, rather than by the Kremlin. United Russia now has a higher support rating and more administrative resources than any of its potential rivals, so converting its December triumph into a convincing presidential election victory would be merely a technicality.

There’s just one problem with this scenario: the Kremlin still hasn’t decided if it should tie the next president to United Russia so closely. The move would mean sacrificing a fairly important attribute of the Russian presidency: for all their gestures to friendly political forces, Yeltsin and Putin have both remained above the fray, never joining a party.

The second point of suspense is whether this election will bring us any closer to a two-party system. The Kremlin appears to be cultivating its first shoots, in the form of Just Russia: giving Sergei Mironov and some of his supporters access to television coverage. On the other hand, the Kremlin’s hilling is so intensive that this delicate little left-wing plant is in some danger of dying. Just Russia’s candidate list has become quite colorless since the Kremlin made Mironov discard any and all combative politicians who might be capable of making United Russia feel the heat. And this compromised has cost Just Russia dearly. At the Kremlin’s insistence, the compilers of Just Russia’s candidate list have rejected former presidential candidate Sergei Glaziev and charismatic hooligan Yevgeny Roizman. Vasili Oyun, authoritative in Tyva, has returned to United Russia. And Mironov’s losses may not end there. The Kremlin is insistently advising him to reject the services of Alexander Lebedev, Duma member and billionaire; but this could be a turn-off for voters who enjoy Lebedev’s criticism of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and it could cost Just Russia a lot of funding as well. Just Russia has gained Alexei Mitrofanov, an outspoken defector from the LDPR; but he is poor compensation for the loss of the colorful politicians mentioned above. And Galina Khovanskaya, formerly with Yabloko, may be well-known in some circles, but she can’t be described as a charismatic politician.

Very roughly, the configuration of forces in the next Duma is likely to look like this: United Russia controlling over half the seats (230-270); about 150 seats shared out between the CPRF and Just Russia; the LDPR still present in the Duma. Barring a miracle, that’s what the next Duma will look like. And the Union of Right Forces (SPS) will try to work a miracle.

The support rating of the SPS is hovering around a negligible 1-2%. It really needs to campaign strongly. This is the decisive battle for the SPS. The presidential administration (which needs a fifth party in the Duma like a cart needs a fifth wheel) is expecting all kinds of trouble from the SPS. The SPS election push will be reinforced with an impressive budget and an extensive networked campaign, with thousands of campaign staff attempting to wake liberal-minded voters from their usual sleep. And the SPS has already been shown, during the Krasnoyarsk territory’s election, what happens to parties that campaign too actively: the SPS campaign headquarters there was subjected to regular raids by the law enforcement agencies. Yet the SPS may well be satisfied with a Krasnoyarsk scenario, since it did manage to get some candidates into the Krasnoyarsk regional legislature.