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October 18, 2004
Political Parties in Crisis
By Nikolai Petrov
Nikolai Petrov is a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Following President Vladimir Putin's latest proposals for government reform, elections have been held for four regional legislatures -- in the Tula, Sakhalin and Irkutsk regions and the republic of Marii-El. Under a mixed electoral system introduced last year, half of the seats in all four legislatures were allocated by party list. These elections offer the first test of strength following the State Duma elections last fall and the presidential election earlier this year.
Reports of United Russia's collapse in these elections are greatly exaggerated. United Russia was very successful in delivering control of the Duma in 2003, but the Kremlin never developed it into a true party of power. Given this fact, and the criticism that the party has faced for unpopular reforms, its performance -- 20 to 30 percent of the vote -- should be viewed as an outstanding achievement. In single-mandate districts, United Russia performed even better. Party leaders deserve little credit for this outcome, however. The real cause is more likely the traditional conformism of a section of the electorate that supports the current regime no matter what.
Reports of the Union of Right Forces' success in the Tula and Irkutsk elections are no less exaggerated. The party ran as part of a bloc that barely managed to clear the 5 percent barrier for representation in parliament.
Three of the four parties in the current Duma -- United Russia, the Communist Party and the Liberal Democrats, or LDPR -- failed to live up to expectations in the four elections. Yet only these parties, along with the Pensioners' Party, contested the party-list vote in all four regions. Though United Russia finished first in every region save Sakhalin, it collected a smaller percentage of the vote than it did in the Duma election. The LDPR tanked in two of four elections. The Communists added a few percentage points to their Duma election total, but that total was so low that the party leadership blamed it on vote-rigging and a Kremlin campaign against the party.
Neither the Communists nor Yabloko managed to tap into potential opposition to the Kremlin's social policy reforms. The left-wing protest vote went to Rodina and the Agrarians, while angry right-wingers stayed home or voted for "none of the above." Only Dmitry Rogozin's Rodina performed well in this regard. The blocs in which it participated took first place in the Sakhalin region and placed second in the Tula region.
The Agrarians were the biggest surprise in these elections, taking 10 to 12 percent in the Irkutsk region and Marii-El, and joining forces with Rodina to finish first in Sakhalin. The Pensioners' Party unexpectedly cleared the 5 percent barrier in all four regions.
These results speak to a crisis in the political party system, and the fading of established parties from the scene. Declining voter turnout -- just half of the turnout for last year's Duma vote -- offers further evidence of the crisis. The number of voters who cast their ballots for "none of the above" rose above 10 percent -- good enough for third place in the party-list contest.
Any election is a useful indicator of the public mood on the one hand, and of the changing distribution of political power on the other. The four elections held this month produced a far better balance of parties than last year's Duma elections. Five or six parties or blocs are represented in each of the four legislatures and none is clearly dominant.
But party representation isn't the most important factor. The regional legislatures will now be called upon to approve amendments to their constitutions, and will have a say in the nomination of governors. What matters is therefore whether or not the governor controls a loyal majority in parliament, and what support the Kremlin can rely on in the consideration of reform measures.
Not all is going smoothly on this last front. The president's reforms have gotten bogged down in a number of regional parliaments, including the Perm, Sverdlovsk, Voronezh and Primorye regions and the republic of Komi.
As for the four newly formed legislatures, with the possible exception of the Tula region, the sitting governors and the Kremlin enjoy the support of a majority of deputies. It remains to be seen which side deputies loyal to both the Kremlin and the governor will take in case of a conflict between the two. A split within United Russia -- as happened recently in the Saratov and Ivanovo regional legislatures cannot be ruled out.
Elections will take place in another six regions before the year is out, providing an opportunity to see if these emerging trends continue.