#18 - JRL 7062
RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly
Vol. 3, No. 7, 13 February 2003
DO POLITICAL PARTIES MATTER IN RUSSIA? The media's attention to Russia's political parties has increased dramatically as the December State Duma elections approach and parties scramble to register with the Justice Ministry. Each twist and turn in efforts to form a coalition between Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces has been laboriously documented (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January and 3 and 4 February 2003). Likewise, the ups and downs of popular support for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party have been the subject of much debate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2003). However, a recent paper by a U.S.-based academic argues that the traditional emphasis on political parties, particularly during the run-up to Duma elections, is misplaced. Pennsylvania State University's Regina Smyth argues that during the past three State Duma election campaigns, analysts on both sides of the Atlantic made wildly incorrect predictions regarding the outcomes by basing their analyses on party organizations (see http://ponars.org).
Smyth's research found that it is not parties, but candidates, who structure election competitions. Parties by and large function as bystanders, while individual candidates decide where and how to run for office and what factors to emphasize in their campaigns. "Rather than operating to shape the set of candidates who run under the party banner, placing candidates in nominal districts and constructing a party list, party leaders appear to take what they can get as candidates pursue their individual interests," Smyth writes. She also found that candidates with strong political ambitions or access to alternative campaign resources generally do not join parties. Candidates who do join parties often choose to maximize their independence within the organization.
Smyth concludes that the current party of power, Unified Russia, "does not need to win the election in order for the Kremlin to win." All Putin needs is the consistent support of approximately half of the deputies elected on party lists, together with the support of independents elected in single-mandate districts, she writes. Although Smyth does not point this out, the fact that the Kremlin lends its support not only to the official party of power but to other centrist "opposition" parties such as Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev's Party of Russia's Rebirth and the Union of Rightist Forces would seem to support her conclusions.
Thomas Remington, chairman of the political science department at Emory University, cautions that the study of political parties in the Russian context is not completely irrelevant. Parties still matter because they are a mechanism by which voters can express their preferences. Also, lawmakers in the Duma do make decisions that are based on what is in their party's interest. But parties do not control the executive branch in Russia and as such, they can make only limited promises about policies they might be powerless to implement. It's the executive branch or the Kremlin -- not the parties or the candidates -- that ultimately calls the shots. (Julie A. Corwin)