Russia’s ruling United Russia party is benefiting from state resources ahead of upcoming legislative elections to such an extent that no amount of funding for challenging political parties could overcome the governing party’s dominance, opposition leaders and political analysts say.
"War chests will play little or no role in deciding the outcome of the State Duma elections," said Olga Mefodyeva, an expert at the Center for Political Information, a Moscow think tank. "The single most effective way to win elections here is to possess the so-called administrative resources and United Russia has a lot of that."
All the seven registered Russian parties lined up for the December 4 State Duma show a strong increase in money spent when compared with the previous campaign in 2007. All the parties together collected 2.79 billion rubles ($89.9 million) but spent 1.74 billion rubles ($56. million), Vedomosti business daily reported on Tuesday, citing figures from state-owned Sberbank, which keeps accounts of receipts and expenditures by political parties.
Pro-Kremlin United Russia showed the second best result by raising 430 million rubles ($13.8 million), while the Liberal Democratic Party emerged as a fund-raising champion with 473 million rubles ($15.2 million) in campaign contributions. The Yabloko party, which hopes to make a comeback after an eight-year hiatus, collected 164 million rubles ($5.2 million) beating the Communist Party which said it netted 120 million rubles ($3.8 million). A Just Russia party collected 202 million rubles ($6.5 million) to clinch the third place.
However, the depth of the parties’ pockets does not necessarily translate into their electoral prospects, according to pollsters. While the Right Cause party led the pack for months with campaign coffers of 350.7 million rubles ($11.4 million), it only garnered one percent in the Levada opinion poll conducted October 21-24. The Liberal Democratic Party also raised more money than United Russia but is expected to receive 11 percent compared to 60 percent for the ruling party, according to polls.
Political analysts explain this disparity by the advantage given to United Russia by the incumbency as well as the control it exercises over the regional authorities and media outlets such as television.
“At this point, nobody actively follows the basic rules set for campaign finance, not one party,” said Elena Panfilova, the head of the Russian branch of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog. “With United Russia it’s obvious – you see buses used to transport voters and other resources being put to use for the campaign, and it becomes clear that it has nothing to do with their campaign finance because they can use administrative resources.”
Mefodyeva said the ruling party has “status resources” which has made it an easily recognizable brand when juxtaposed with other political parties.
“Status resources helps the party attract people who will ordinarily not want to be identified with it,” Mefodyeva said. “For instance, United Russia is the only party fielding the largest number of vice-premiers in this year’s regional elections. That enhances its status as the dominant party.”
More than that, President Dmitry Medvedev is leading the party's electoral list in the December Duma vote, even as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is likely to be Russia's next president, holds the party’s formal leadership. The men are not members of the party, but they get positive carpet coverage by the state-run media, especially television.
Media reports indicate that regional authorities have been using their offices to campaign for United Russia on several occasions. Over the past two months, there have been at least two reported cases of electoral blackmail by senior officials in the Udmurtia region. In the latest example, Alexander Goriyanov, a United Russia official and in the meantime the head of the governor’s office in Udmurtia speaking at a televised event threatened funding cutbacks for a local town unless it voted for his party in the upcoming State Duma elections. On another occasion, Denis Agashin, the city manager of the regional capital Izhevsk, demanded the local pensioners must vote for the United Russia if they want more money for social programs aimed at them.
Deputy head of the United Russia’s Central Executive Committee, Dmitry Polikanov, agreed that there have been some abuses of office by the party but attributed it to the actions of overzealous officials acting independently in the regions.
"Of course, in a big party like ours it is difficult to control all the regional officials working on behalf of the party," Polikanov said. "Where there might have been abuses or misuse of administrative resources, they have not been sanctioned by the party leadership."
Polikanov stressed though that the cited abuses will not influence the outcome of December elections because "it is indisputable that the party leads in popularity ratings."
Such reported abuses by the United Russia is a serious concern for smaller opposition parties, such as Yabloko, which hopes to enter the State Duma this year after eight years in the cold.
"We are concerned about the use and misuse of administrative resources by members of the ruling party," said Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin. "Although we very much hope to cross the 7 percent threshold for Duma entry, everything in this election depends on how the "party of power" behaves."
Leaving the issue of abuse of authority during the campaign aside, still many questions linger about how parties spend their money to boost their ratings ahead of the elections.
Russian legislature raised the amount that each political party could spend on this year's parliamentary elections from 400 million rubles ($13.2 million) to 700 million rubles ($23 million) but analysts said the spending limits are not sufficient to run effective national campaigns. This has forced some parties to resort to different murky schemes like using cash to pay for campaign obligations.
Lilia Shibanova, executive director of the GOLOS election watchdog said this practice has made it impossible to track the true expenditures of the political parties on everything from services paid for out of pocket to the employment of administrative or government resources during the campaigns.
Reports also abound of parties selling positions on the party lists to rich businessmen to raise money. In the past elections, parties like the LDPR had catapulted moneybags into the State Duma by putting them on their electoral list. Former businessman Ashot Yegiazaryan, the first sitting State Duma deputy ever to flee the country, has been an LDPR Duma deputy since 1999. So has billionaire Suleiman Kerimov who was for some time the Deputy Chairman of the Duma Committee on Physical Culture, Sports and Youth even though he was rarely seen taking part in Duma debates.
The practice was so rampant that President Vladimir Putin told the United Russia party convention in October 2007 to bar big business from politics. In one of the most recent examples, however, A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov was forced to beat back accusations from Lyudmila Komogortseva, head of the Bryansk branch of the party in September that the Bryansk branch of the party was selling places in the party’s electoral list to "fat cats from Moscow."
The electoral rules for raising campaign funds in Russia have also come under criticism, with many analysts saying it is both murky and complex.
Campaign finance filings suggest that business people, who typically channel even legal contributions via intermediaries, are the main source of funds for all parties. Almost all the registered parties, from the Communist Party to the Patriots of Russia Party, have listed, albeit anonymously, deep-pocketed donors as contributors. Staying in the shadow, experts say, helps businesses to avoid retaliation on the part of state authorities against donors that provide funds to parties or candidates not favored by the Kremlin.
“Business and politics are not separate in Russia, and the Kremlin’s not eager to see minor parties get funding,” said Carnegie Center expert Nikolai Petrov. “This can lead them into trouble."