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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Neo-Soviet Electoral Politics Lay Bare Putin's Fundamental Weakness

The Washington Post reports on electoral politics in the Neo-Soviet Union:

KURSK, Russia — With aggressive recruiting and laws that could further sideline opponents, the United Russia party that underpins President Vladimir Putin is consolidating its power to a level that critics compare to the Communists' political monopoly in Soviet days.

In March, United Russia announced that it had 1 million members and planned to recruit another million before parliamentary elections in 2007, numbers that dwarf every other party's. Regional governors, business leaders and key bureaucrats, seeing where political power lies, have been flocking to its ranks."United Russia's task is not just to win in 2007 but to think how to achieve the party's dominance over the next 10 to 15 years," Vladislav Surkov, Putin's deputy chief of staff, told party activists in February.

"Ideological battle"

Surkov went on to warn that the party would have to "reduce dependence on administrative resources," jargon for using bureaucratic powers to disperse potential challengers. United Russia would finally have to "master the habits of ideological battle," he said, to compete in the multiparty system the Kremlin insists is slowly being built.

Opinion polls show that Putin, who is not a member of United Russia but uses it as his political machine, is popular with the Russian public. But the Kremlin is not inclined to allow any meaningful opposition, analysts here say. Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, described the party as a vehicle to be used to neuter parliament and allow all power to flow from the Kremlin.

Putin's rollback of democratic institutions in Russia may be at center stage in St. Petersburg next month, when Russia hosts the annual meeting of the Group of Eight, made up of Russia and the seven largest industrial democracies. Among other measures, Putin has reversed the popular election of regional governors, curtailed independent broadcasts, imposed new restrictions on grass-roots advocacy groups and squeezed rival parties, reducing them to obscurity.

In March, Rodina, a populist, nationalist party that was once groomed by the Kremlin but had recently sounded increasingly independent themes, was struck from the ballot in seven of eight regional elections.
In Moscow, Rodina was accused of fanning ethnic hatred when it ran an ad attacking illegal immigrants. In Kursk and other regions, courts found it guilty of bribing voters by handing out trinkets with the party logo. The party is routinely depicted as fascist by United Russia and state-controlled television stations, a charge that its former leader, Dmitry Rogozin, calls ludicrous.

Rogozin stepped down in March. He said in an interview that senior Kremlin officials had warned him that his party would not be allowed to contest elections if he remained in a leadership position. "They want to be a ruling party with a permitted and managed opposition," he said.

But for all its apparent strength, United Russia rests on uncertain foundations, according to critics and some party members. It has benefited from Putin's personal popularity and the inherent weakness and disunity of opposition groups, but it may still find it difficult to attract more than 40 percent of all voters, according to Petrov and other analysts.

In less than two years, moreover, Putin will be gone, unless a constitutional amendment allows him to seek a third term. The loyalty of much of the party's vast membership does not flow from deep ideological affinity, some critics say, but from the less dependable motive of self-interest.

"United Russia is a career ladder" somewhat like the old Soviet Communist Party, said Rostislav Turovsky, an analyst of regional politics at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. Joining "is the essential and probably the only way to become part of the elite."

In the past two years, about 20 governors — former Communists and independents — have joined the party, often bringing with them key members of local political, business and bureaucratic elites, according to Petrov. Governors of 71 of Russia's 88 regions now pledge allegiance to United Russia, and the party controls 58 of the country's regional parliaments.

The Communist Party has become so alarmed by the scale of defections from its ranks that last month it ordered members to report all contacts with government bodies in an effort to rein in what it called "political betrayal."

A new rule book

In the national parliament over the last year, United Russia has pushed through a series of laws that critics charge are designed to prevent electoral fairness and lock in the party's preeminence.

Parties have to be organized on a national basis, with at least 50,000 members. Registers are checked by the Justice Ministry, which has been accused of intimidating people who oppose the government. Parties must secure at least 7 percent of the vote to enter parliament, and if they fail, their votes are distributed among the larger parties, boosting those parties' share of seats.

A new law also abolished individual constituencies, by which the small number of independents in parliament generally obtained their seats. In 2007, all parliamentary seats will be distributed on the basis of how many votes a party receives, with the party itself deciding who serves.

"United Russia does not feel any competition," said Alexander Lebedev, who represents the party in the national parliament but has a reputation as a maverick. "This is wrong thing, not to let the country have a proper parliament. Control is exactly what led to demise of the Soviet Union."

But others in United Russia insist that their policies will build a competitive party system and could weaken the party's own position in the next parliament.

Although independents won some individual constituencies in the 2003 vote, they point out, United Russia candidates won most of the rest. With those constituencies eliminated, the party will need at least 50 percent of the overall vote to maintain the strength it enjoys in the current parliament. A simple majority of seats will require at least 42 percent, analysts said.

The Kursk contest

The difficulty of achieving even that level was seen in regional elections in Kursk in March. The popularity of the governor, who had recently joined United Russia, boosted the party's vote by about seven points, said Slatinov, of Kursk State University. An old rival of the governor's was tossed off the ballot by the courts, as was the Rodina party.

Rural voters were threatened with electricity and gas cuts unless they turned out for United Russia, according to Boris Gogolev, second secretary of the local Communist Party. United Russia also vastly outspent its rivals on campaign ads.

For all that, Slatinov said, United Russia got only 37 percent of the vote, well short of its goal of 45 percent.
The party's public hand-wringing engenders cynicism from its rivals. "United Russia is playing democracy because that's what the Kremlin wants," said Yevgeny Yasin, a former economics minister. "In the end, they will get exactly the number of votes they want or need."

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