Friday, 30 November 2007

Duma election set to be undermined by Putin's Plan

Russia goes to the polls on Sunday in order to elect 450 deputies to sit in its parliament, the Duma, for the next four years. The ballot is taking place amidst increasing accusations of unfair electioneering and vote rigging.

The chances of anything resembling a free and fair election diminished substantially from the moment it became clear that the poll would be considered a referendum on Vladimir Putin’s status as “National Leader”. Although the President enjoys popular support in Russia, his presence heading the United Russia list, is not alone sufficient to ensure that the party achieve the 60% plus mandate which Putin feels is needed.

Turning a parliamentary election into a personal approval poll itself undermines the worth of that institution, but a number of strategies have been employed to ensure that the Duma will not comprise any meaningful opposition to Putin or United Russia. Electoral reform designed to stifle independent candidates and small parties had already been instigated before Putin’s intentions became clear. Demanding a 7% threshold of the total vote in order to admit a party to parliament drastically limits the spectrum of representation in such a large and diverse country and coupled with a chronic lack of media exposure for smaller parties the effect is particularly dramatic. This poll will also operate solely on the list system, thus abolishing the limited number of constituency elected deputies, a likely source of independent representatives.

The Guardian today runs a story highlighting rumours which have circulated for some time that public employees are being galvanised in support of United Russia and therefore Putin. Already it has been alleged that public rallies organised in support of the President have been bulked out by public employees compelled to attend. The suggestion is that these employees will be strongly pressurised to vote for Putin and indeed that a level of supervision will stiffen this compulsion. The Guardian’s Leader is cynical about the democratic bona fides of the election and suggests that should voters still deliver an unsatisfactory result, despite the favourable conditions for United Russia, there is still possible recourse to computer fraud for the pro-Putin authorities.

Meanwhile the opposition parties have been heightening their much repeated complaints about unfair treatment in the media. It is instructive that the opposition parties which have been accorded a level of coverage (all be it much less than United Russia) are Zyuganov’s Communists and Zhirinovksy’s LDPR. Zyuganov’s party enjoy something in the region of 14% of the vote and will form the bulk of limited opposition in the Duma. Zhirinovksy’s ironically named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, may fall below the 7% threshold, but despite the demagogue’s fiery reputation have assumed a Kremlin-friendly line. Fielding Andrei Lugovoi was a typical piece of demotic anti-Western posturing by Zhirinovsky, but it also sits comfortably with the theme of Putin’s prevailing rhetoric.

The poll on Sunday will be at best limited in its freedom and the result is likely to be a resounding win for Putin and United Russia, despite indications that spiralling food prices have lessened the party’s popularity in recent weeks. Perhaps the most interesting developments will take place after the election but before the end of Putin’s term in March. During this period Putin’s intentions for maintaining his “national leadership” will manifest themselves. Whether he eludes constitutional rules by resigning before his term elapses, or whether he actually changes the constitution in order to stand for a third term are matters for conjecture. Putin may or may not manipulate a third term as President, but what has become patently obvious is that he does not intend to relinquish his influence on Russian politics any time soon.

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