Russia - plebiscite instead of parliamentary elections


MOSCOW. (Alexander Konovalov for RIA Novosti) - Several months ago, the majority of analysts would have described the December 2 Duma elections as quite predictable and devoid of political intrigue.

But the closer the elections, the more dramatic and unpredictable the situation becomes.

President Vladimir Putin's decision to head United Russia's federal ticket has wreaked havoc with the whole system of party relations. His move has also dealt a blow at the artificial multi-party system, which the Kremlin has built with incessant zeal. Both election campaigns, parliamentary and presidential, were prepared very thoroughly and political strategists were thrilled with their results. The president's rating skyrocketed and the leadership of the ruling United Party was beyond any doubt. Single-mandate constituencies and voter turnout didn't matter, while the 7% threshold guaranteed no rivals in the Duma.

The parliamentary elections had only one goal - to secure the Duma's loyalty to the Kremlin and control over it. Judging by everything, three parties created and backed by the Kremlin were assigned this task - United Russia, Fair Russia and Civil Force. But with the approaching date of the elections, the alignment of political forces in Russia has changed beyond recognition.

The election tickets include the names of 11 parties but there will be no equal rivalry. Duma seats will be divided by four or rather three political parties. The four will include United Russia, the Communists, Liberal Democrats and Fair Russia. Sociological polls show that now only United Russia and the Communists will confidently cross the 7% threshold.

Putin's decision to head United Russia's federal ticket has put Sergei Mironov-led Fair Russia into a very difficult position. Even with current political flexibility, it is not at all easy to combine loyalty to Putin with strong criticism of the party he leads. Fair Russia was going to lash out against United Russia; however, now this is not only inappropriate but may be politically unsafe. Even to score a modest success and cross the 7% barrier, Fair Russia will have to use its administrative resource and withdraw from the election race one of the two parties - the Communists or Liberal Democrats, which had good chances of getting Duma seats until recently.

The Liberal Democrats seem the most likely target, all the more so since this party and its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky are having serious problems. The main one is that nobody needs this party any longer. The constitutional majority of the ruling power will be guaranteed and Zhirinovsky may step down from the political scene as a figure who has accomplished his historical mission. His party is not likely to get elected now that Putin has decided to head United Russia's list, particularly since Putin said at the party congress that it needs a landslide rather than just a victory.

At first, it seemed that Duma seats would go to United Russia, Fair Russia and the Communists, with two former parties forming a controlled constitutional majority. The Communists are well adapted to the system and will not cause problems. But Putin said that United Russia should gain a constitutional majority in the Duma on its own. Be that as it may, the new Duma will be more of a Kremlin division than an independent institution of legislative power.

The attempt to impose multi-party elections from above based on proportionate representation has produced a strange result. Russia is going back to an essentially one-party system, whereas the parliamentary elections have become pointless by being turned into a plebiscite, which will give Putin a lawful mandate of indisputable national leader. There is practically no doubt that he will receive it. But it is not clear what he will do with it.

Incidentally, the president's behaviour in the last few months has been not in the least reminiscent of a lame duck. Quite the reverse - Putin has never been so active in making appointments and they have followed a strict logic. He has assigned only his confidants to key political positions. Their skill to control big financial flows is more important than experience or knowledge of the subject. In fact, he has been creating a system of state-run corporations with gigantic budgets and very dubious economic yield in parallel with the government. This does not look like a prelude to retirement and change of power. To the contrary, this effort is aimed at consolidating the commanding heights in the economy and politics, which will help him stay in power.

There is every reason to believe that the Kremlin's plan is as follows. It will replace the elections with a plebiscite, which will grant Putin the mandate of the nation's political leader. This replacement is already being talked about openly. The president is involved in vigorous agitprop activities, although a nominee in office is not allowed to do so by law. During public meetings Putin emphasized more than once that he has made such achievements as president only because he has relied on United Russia support. The massive For Putin movement, obviously sanctioned from above, is already gaining momentum.

The idea of using parliamentary elections to introduce the position of the nation's political leader with vague powers is dangerous for two reasons. First, it deprives Russia of a legal constitutional procedure of changing heads of state. Second, this road leads to the creation of two parallel centers of power.

How will this be institutionalized? Will there be two cabinets in the Kremlin - one for the President of the Russian Federation and the other for the National Leader of the Russian Federation? Wouldn't this be absurd? An official can function in a system he or she understands. Who deserves the highest honor? Who will help resolve daily problems? These and many other questions require clear-cut unequivocal answers. Otherwise, officials will go to both leaders simultaneously or restore the usual hierarchy on top of all that. In Russia, dual power has always spelled destabilization and aggravation of the domestic political struggle - or worse.

Alexander Konovalov heads the Institute for Strategic Assessments.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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