Political scientist Aleksei Makarkin: The powers-that-be change the electoral strategy.

United Russia showed the worst results in years in March 14 election in Russian regions so that its faulty performance provoked the first and so far tentative forecasts regarding the Duma election in December 2011. Oksana Goncharenko, an expert with the Political Situation Center, plainly stated that too many up-to-the-minute factors that had affected the outcome of the March election prevented any more or less accurate estimates of how things were going to turn out in 2011. “Society was greatly upset by tariffs of communal and housing services lately, and the opposition actively used it while canvassing for votes,” Goncharenko said. “The president and the ruling party both indicated that this was a sphere requiring constant control but how long this tendency might last is nothing we can be sure of. After all, importance of this subject might ebb in the time remaining before the next federal election.”

The administrative resource is another factor that could not be gauged. “Yes, it was used with considerably less gusto in this election, and the opposition itself recognizes it,” Goncharenko said. The expert regarded this particular tendency as fairly stable already. On the other hand, this same resource was energetically used just a few months ago, in October. It was used so actively and indiscriminately that the Kremlin itself found it necessary to intervene. This lesser emphasis on the administrative resource in the March election shows the regional elites to be capable of a swift change of tactic.

By and large, Goncharenko called the decline of United Russia’s support in the regions “situational”. “There were lots of undecided voters, and political parties vied for their votes,” she said. “The opposition did better than the ruling party. On the other hand, the opposition offers no interesting ideas to voters, and criticism alone of the powers-that-be is not going to take them far.”

Token presence in the regional parliaments is going to deprive the opposition of the moral right to criticize the authorities – at least with the previous vehemence. Formally, they themselves belong to the authorities now. It is true of course that this token presence leaves everything including decision-making pretty much to United Russia. “And yet, there is no law saying that the opposition cannot come up with initiatives or promote interests of the strata of the population they represent,” Goncharenko said. “It’s time to show that street protests are not all the opposition is capable of.”

Neither did Aleksei Makarkin of the Political Techniques Center venture a guess on the probable arrangement of political forces in 2011. He said, however, that the March 11 had displayed a change in electoral strategy. “There was a period when the strategy aimed at maximization of United Russia’s presence in the corridors of power,” Makarkin said. “It was carried out with such devotion that the paradigm blew up in October 2009. The most devoted opposition finally saw itself as an obstacle barring United Russia’s way and promptly left the Duma.” As a result, the powers-that-be had to send a message to ease administrative pressure and all parliamentary parties made it into regional parliaments on March 14. “So, it is not a crisis of United Russia or decline of its popularity that we are witnessing. The referee is changing the rules of the game, that’s all.”

Speaking about the next parliamentary election, Makarkin said that its outcome would depend on the tactic chosen by the federal authorities – one used on October 11 vs the March 14 one. In other words, everything depended on the administrative resource. “It means that everything depends on what political decision is made. The political decision in its turn depends on who is on top of United Russia’s ticket. And on what the election is supposed to accomplish, of course.”

Conversion of the parliamentary election into another referendum on confidence in the powers-that-be will require an emphasis on the administrative resource in order to maximize United Russia’s results. Should the authorities decide to use the Duma election as a sort of primaries before the ensuing presidential race, use of the administrative resource will be wholly unprecedented. Only a “common parliamentary election” will permit a more or less tranquil campaign with an outcome resembling what we observed after March 14.

In a word, the political scientist made it plain that the final decision was to be made by the so called tandem. What it decided would be carried out. Regional powers-that-be are adaptable enough to do whatever is expected from them. March 14 proved them capable of ensuring both 60% and 40% votes cast for the ruling party. Unfortunately, society, too, will accept any decision of the tandem.