“United Russia” (UR) — the political party which backs Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin — won an easy victory in the elections held on 1 December for the Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian parliament). At the time of writing, early results indicate that UR won 63% of votes cast.
The pro-Kremlin and ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia picked up nearly 10% of the votes, and the equally pro-Kremlin “Just Russia” party scored just over 7%. The only opposition party to win seats in the Duma — the nationalist, conservative and clerical Communist Party — won just over 11% of the votes.
Other participating political parties did not, it appears, win enough votes to secure even a single seat in the Duma.
UR’s victory owed much to the various “reforms” of the electoral system implemented since the last Duma elections, held in 2003. Those “reforms” were designed to maintain the grip on power exercised by Putin, appointed President by Boris Yeltsin at the close of 1999, and winner of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
The number of members needed to secure registration for a political party was increased from 10,000 to 50,000. First-past-the-post seats in individual constituencies were scrapped, in order to prevent popular local “maverick” candidates from winning seats.
The share of the votes needed by a party to secure representation in the Duma was also increased from 5% to 7%. And coalitions between parties, to enable them to jointly reach that threshold, are not allowed.
Given that such measures were likely to reduce voter turnout — voters are hardly going to vote if their party has been prevented from standing candidates — a further “reform” scrapped the previous requirement for a minimum voter turnout for an election to be valid.
The replacement of elected regional governors by appointed governors — with all the appointments in Putin’s hands — was another “reform” which contributed to UR’s success.
All 85 governors knew that they owed their position to Putin, and that they were expected to return the favour by mobilising for a vote for UR in the elections. In fact, 75% of governors are themselves members of UR and were the main candidates for UR in their region.
Electoral manipulation was backed by up a blatant pro-UR and pro-Putin bias in the — directly or indirectly — state-controlled media, especially television.
The Channel One and Rossiya television stations are both state-owned, while NTV is owned by the state-controlled Gazprom energy giant (the world’s largest gas producer and exporter). For 80% of the Russian population these three channels are the main source of news.
In the month preceding the elections Putin and UR were given 60% of prime-time political news coverage which was often more akin to a party-political broadcast than news. But real news about such things as bans and police attacks on the political opposition was not carried by television stations.
The media, it is true, did carry political debates. But UR refused to take part in them, in order to avoid having to defend its policies and record from attacks by its political opponents. And the debates were broadcast either at seven o’clock in the morning or after midnight. They attracted just 1.5 % of television viewers.
In many parts of the country workers and students were pressurised into voting for UR. Workplace “briefings” were held, at which managers stressed the importance of voting for UR. The principle of “one to ten” was applied: each worker or student was required to provide a list of ten other people whom he/she would guarantee to vote for UR.
In a practice harking back to the Soviet period, local government officials in one region ordered schools and workplaces to send contingents to a UR rally. Some government and local government employees were also instructed to obtain absentee ballots — the number of which issued in these elections was 54 times higher in some regions than in the 2003 Duma elections — and fill them in at work.
Workers were threatened with the sack or loss of bonus pay if they failed to support UR. Students were similarly threatened with loss of dormitory accommodation or even expulsion from university if they failed to back UR.
UR’s political opponents were subject to sustained and state-sanctioned harassment. They were refused the use of halls for rallies. Their offices were raided. Their demonstrations were banned, and then broken up by the police if they went ahead. In some regions their election material was confiscated. In Siberia, for example, a million leaflets printed by the “Union of Right Forces” were seized, for supposedly breaching electoral regulations.
In the weekend before the elections opposition demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg were broken up by the police. Those arrested included the “Union of Right Forces” leader Boris Nemtsov and the “Other Russia” leader Garry Kasparov.
Various electoral malpractices were also reported on election day. These included: multiple voting; the detention of election observers belonging to opposition political parties; the distribution of ballot papers already marked with a vote for UR; and elections officials going door-to-door with ballot boxes, to encourage people to vote UR.
In his election speeches — although Putin is not an actual UR member, in October he was declared UR’s top candidate in the elections — Putin whipped up nationalist fervour, and then unleashed it against UR’s opponents.
“We have no right to allow the State Duma to become a gathering of populists, paralysed with corruption and demagogy, we cannot allow the repeat of the situation that has already taken place in our country,” declared Putin, speaking at a pre-election rally in the Luzhnikakh Stadium in Moscow.
“There are still people in our country who scavenge near foreign embassies like jackals, who beg at the doors of diplomats’ offices, who count on the support of foreign funds and governments but not on the support of their own people,” he continued.
Without referring to the Communist Party and the “Union of Right Forces” by name, Putin divided UR’s opponents into two groups: “Those who ruled Russia for decades and left the people without basic goods and services in the late eighties, and those who took key positions in the government in the nineties and served the oligarchs, harming the state and the society.”
The latter, claimed Putin, were “planning their revenge and a return to power through street protests, using the technologies learned from the Western specialists.” They “want to take revenge, return to power, return to influence on events, and gradually restore the oligarchic regime, built on corruption and lies. And they are lying today as well.”
However hypocritical Putin’s criticisms of his political opponents may have been — given his own regime’s record of oligarchism, corruption and lies — they were essentially accurate and hit home.
A return to late-Soviet economic stagnation or the “wild West” capitalism of the 1990s, which is what the opposition parties were seen to stand for, held little attraction for the bulk of the Russian electorate.
Putin, on the other hand, is credited by a significant proportion of the electorate with “turning Russia around” — achieving economic stability, cracking down on the oligarchs, re-establishing law and order, and restoring Russia’s status as a world power.
The Russian economy has grown by nearly 7% a year since Putin was first elected President in 2000. The value of Russian stocks has increased by a trillion dollars over the same period. According to one opinion taken last month, 57% of Russians have confidence in Putin.
And this was certainly an image which UR played on during the election campaign. After Putin was declared UR’s lead candidate in October, UR changed its slogan from “Putin’s Plan is Russia’s Triumph” to the even more explicit “Putin’s Triumph is Russia’s Triumph”.
In almost Stalinist fashion, UR television campaign adverts interspersed shots of Putin with footage of ships being launched, combine harvesters bringing in the crops, missiles being fired, rockets being launched, fighter planes criss-crossing the skies, marching soldiers, and high-tech factories.
It was not enough, however, for UR simply to win the elections. UR needed to win them with an overwhelming majority. The reasons for this relate to the Russian presidential elections due to be held in March of 2008.
Having already served two terms of office as President, Putin is constitutionally barred from standing for re-election. Even so, he wants to continue to “exercise political influence” after the March elections. As Putin himself put in the run-up to the elections, a big vote for UR would provide him with the “moral right” to remain a key political figure.
But more was at stake than Putin’s personal ambitions and political future. For the bureaucratic and oligarchic elite which surrounds Putin, a political upheaval next March and the election of an anti-Putin candidate (unlikely as it is) could signal the demise of their political influence and financial power.
From their point of view, the smoother the handover to a new pro-Putin President next March, the lower the risk to their positions. The elections were therefore simultaneously a referendum on Putin’s terms of office as President and an attempt to guarantee political stability next March.
Even though Putin, as the governing President, could not take up a seat in the Duma until after the end of his term of office, Putin ended up heading the UR list of candidates in order to blur the distinction between parliamentary elections and a referendum on his terms of office: a vote for UR was simultaneously a vote of confidence in Putin, and vice versa.
Hence the sudden appearance of the supposedly non-party-political “For Putin” movement, which claimed to have collected 30 million signatures in support of Putin continuing to act as a political leader after next March. Self-evidently, the best way to ensure this goal was achieved — and this “non-party-political” movement did not need to spell it out — was to vote UR in last Sunday’s elections.
Putin, however, was careful to keep a certain distance between himself and UR. Announcing his role as the party’s lead candidate, Putin stated:
“What is United Russia, then? Is it an ideal political organisation? Of course it isn’t. The party has no stable political ideology or principles for which the overwhelming majority of members are ready to fight. And, as a rule, being close to those in power, as United Russia is, all kind of crooks try to latch on to it, often with success.”
Underlining its total servility to Putin, UR described such criticism as “well-deserved”. According to UR leader Oleg Kovalyov: “As usual, the President said the right thing. I’m one of the founders of United Russia and I know that the party is not perfect, but this is not a disaster. We are developing together with Russian society.”
At a general level, the rigged electoral “reforms”, the role played by the state-controlled media, and the repression of oppositional political campaigning were all evidence of the limitations of even bourgeois democracy in Russia. The approaching end of Putin’s spell as President merely added a more specific reason for such electoral malpractices.
The Russian elections were not a travesty of democracy because of ballot-box stuffing (although there may well have been instances of that). They were a travesty of democracy because they were an empty charade in which the outcome had been rigged in advance.
The outcome of the elections did not determine who would rule the country. On the contrary, those who already ruled the country determined the outcome of the elections.