Unlike the last US Presidential elections, there were no recounts or dodgy chads to create nail biting tension in the recent Russian Duma elections. The contest for places in Russia’s Duma (the parliament) went almost as planned in Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy”. Perhaps the most interesting information to be revealed on Election Day was that Putin’s favorite pet Alsatian had overnight given birth to eight puppies.
Although the final results are still to be confirmed, the preliminary count gives the pro-Putin United Russia Party 37% of the vote, the Communist Party 13%, Zhirinovskii’s Liberal Democrats 12%, and the new block Rodina (‘Homeland’) 9%. These were the only parties to cross the 5% barrier which entitles them to divide up half the places in the Duma between them. The other half are allocated on the basis of a first past the post system, which operates in 225 constituencies.
This means that Putin’s supporters have an outright majority of seats in the Duma and that he can probably rely on enough support from the other parties to get a two thirds majority for any constitutional reforms he may wish to push through. Government ministers are indeed already gloating that no longer will the Duma block their ‘reforms’. The Minister of Labour speaks about pushing through a new Labour Law (as if the current one isn’t dictatorial enough!), while the Minister of Education can barely contain himself as he talks of reforming the education system.
It was no surprise that for the first time since the collapse of the former USSR, the President’s main party has gained a majority. For the last two years, democratic rights have been whittled away. Political parties have faced a new law, making it extremely difficult to register and campaign. The mass media has been largely bought back under state control and during the election campaign the media was massively biased in favour of the Kremlin’s parties and against the opposition. Furthermore, the arrest of the Oligarch Khodorkovskii in the autumn acted as a warning to any section of the capitalist class that wanted to finance the opposition parties of what the consequences could be. Add to this, Putin’s party had the support of the powerful “administrative resource”. This body, which is controlled by the ruling elite, is a network of Regional Governors and the local bureaucracies. It was used to campaign in support of United Russia – so successfully it is almost surprising that the ruling party did not get a higher percentage.
Collapse of Communist support
Although it was clear that the Communist Party (CP) would not get the same support as last time, the fall by almost a half to 13% was almost better than the Kremlin had hoped for. Many of the CP’s votes were picked up by Zhirinovskii, who nearly doubled his vote, and the new Rodina block, which was only formed three months ago. Both the main neo –liberal parties – the Union of Right Forces, of Chubais and Nemtsov, and Yavlinskii’s ‘Yabloka’ – did worse than expected, and both lost their blocks in the Duma.
There are several reasons for the collapse of the CP vote. First of all, the CP has proved to be an ineffective opposition in the Duma over the past four years. At best, all it has managed to do is irritate the Kremlin by delaying some bills. In the run-up to the election, the Kremlin created a number of new parties with the aim of attracting part of the CP’s natural electorate to other apparently ‘left’ parties. The best example of this is the Rodina block, formed by Sergei Glazyev, a CP ‘fellow traveller’, who is widely recognised as the main ideologue of Russian economic protectionism. Rodina was given huge media coverage, first of all to play the Russian chauvinist card. When tensions rose between Russian and the Ukraine, over Russia’s attempt to build a sand bank encroaching on Ukrainian waters in the Azor Sea, Glazyev’s partner, Rogozin, rushed to mobilise Cossacks against the Ukraine.
Towards the end of the election campaign, the tone of Rodina changed and emphasis was put on economic questions and, in particular, attacks on the oligarchs. The impression was given by Rodina that if it won the election it would review the privatisations of the early Nineties. This saw its ratings begin to climb.
Faced with this opposition, the CP could only have succeeded if it had campaigned audaciously against the economic and social injustices in society, and offered a concrete programme to solve them. But the leadership was incapable of doing this. Instead they tried to compete for the Russian chauvinistic electorate. Second place in the party list was given to a renowned anti-Semite and nationalistic former regional governor. CP leader, Zhuganov, changed his vocabulary – instead of talking of “Rossians” (residents of Russia whatever their nationality) he spoke of “Russkii” (meaning Russian, excluding other nationalities). But on this ground he had to compete, not only with the new Rodina, but also with Zhirinovkii’s party and the Kremlin, which increasingly based itself on the “defence” of Russia’s national interests. Almost unbelievably, the CP party then allocated the majority of the top 15 places on its party list to representatives of the oil industry. One of them was so rich he “forgot” to declare to the Electoral Commission that he owned two Mercedes. This meant that the CP ended up with the image of being a party of the oligarchs.
During, and since, the elections, Zuganov complained bitterly about ballot rigging. There can be no doubt that in some regions this practice was widespread. In one constituency in Chechnya, for example, the Kremlin’s candidate won 100% of the vote. Even the official TV commentator scornfully commented that there must have been some spoiled ballots. In Bashkiria, one of the internal republics, the President made sure that no opposition candidates were allowed. In the week before the election in Bashkiria it was revealed that extra ballot papers had been printed for stuffing boxes. The international inspectorate of elections, the OBSE, criticised the Russian elections for breaching several democratic norms during the election. Interestingly, the Communist Party organised its own parallel count of votes. According to these figures, the CP gained even slightly less than officially declared but the two neo-liberal parties crossed the 5% barrier.
It is clear that a number of established parties, the Communist Party, Yabloko, and the Union of Right Forces, now face internal crises. Zhirinovskii has been given a boost by the results. His vote is explained by the collapse of the CP vote and the desperation of many electors, particularly in the Far East, around Vladivostok and the Pacific coast, where conditions of life are getting worse. Over the past year, entire regions have had water and electricity tightly rationed. However, since it first entered Parliament in 1991, Zhirinovskii’s party has not once voted once against the Kremlin on a critical vote.
Significantly, there was also a drop in voter turnout, of around 3% from the last elections. Added to this is the 5% who used their option to vote “against all” candidates. In four of the single mandate constituencies “against all” gained more votes than any other candidate. In ten seats in the elections to the Moscow City Council, the number of “against all” was also very high.
These figures indicate that there is room for a new type of party to develop. Unfortunately, the initiative taken at the beginning of 2002, to establish a Party of Labour, by uniting the two main independent trade union federations, stumbled at the first hurdle. Instead of campaigning openly to mobilise opposition to the policies of the government, the leadership of Party of Labour spent its time attempting to find possible partners for an electoral block. The leaders proposed joining the Rodina block at the beginning of the official election campaign. This led to a crisis within the Party of Labour and its effective collapse.
Perhaps the only bright news to come out of this election is that Oleg Shein, who was a Deputy in the last Duma, and fought a hard campaign against the new Labour Law, was re-elected in his Constituency of Astrakhan.
Initially, Socialist Resistance – the CWI in the CIS – welcomed the formation of the Party of Labour and was prepared to support it in the election. We could not, however, support its participation in the Rodina block. We, therefore, called on workers and youth to not support any of the parties supported by big business – including the CP – but called on workers to organise their own independent class organisations, to assist working class struggle.
These elections show, once again, that only when a genuine workers’ party is formed, with an internationalist socialist programme, can any real opposition to the Kremlin and Russia’s new capitalism be established.