Communist Party and neo-liberal opposition fail to win mass appeal
The election, last weekend, of Vladimir Putin to the office of president of Russia, is surrounded by allegations of widespread voter fraud. It sparked new opposition mass street protests on 5 March against the continuing rule of Putin and the rich elite around him. Tens of thousands took to the streets and hundreds of protesters were arrested in Moscow and St Petersburg.
According to the electoral commission in Russia, Putin won 64% of the vote in last weekend’s presidential elections, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, won 17%, the neo-liberal Mikhail Prokorov got 8%, the far-right Zhirinovskii won 6% and Just Russia’s Mironov got under 4%.
The Kremlin calculated that a vote somewhere between Putin’s 53% won in 2000 and 72% in 2004 would be the most ‘creditable’ vote. It assures Putin of victory in the first round, but it is widely recognized that the “administrative vote” (that is people who are forced to vote under the threat of sacking or other sanctions by employers, universities and the like) is worth 15-20%. On this measure alone, Putin probably “honestly” received around 40-45% of the vote. Significantly, Putin failed to win a majority of the vote in Moscow.
The Communist Party has nothing to celebrate with 17%. Their vote in the presidential elections ranged between 30% and 40% in the 1990’s and fell to 17.7% in 2008. In last December’s parliamentary election, they gained 19% of the vote but could not match or improve that vote last weekend. In the months since, Moscow and the rest of Russia were rocked by massive protests calling for the downfall of Putin. For the Communist Party to get its lowest vote in 20 years is a disaster that cannot be explained away completely as a result of fraud.
It is reported that the oligarch Prokorov, participating in his first election, won one of the most significant results. In Moscow and St Petersburg, he gained 17% of the vote, knocking Zyuganov into third place. However, it should be remembered that Prokorov, a representative of the Russian Union of Industrialists, renowned for demanding a 60 hour working week, is an ally of the Kremlin. He was unofficially delegated the task of establishing a right wing neo-liberal party by the Kremlin to cut across the support of the more independent Yabloko party and other opposition forces. Yabloko was refused the right to participate in the presidential election.
Sergei Mironov, from the Just Russia party, gained under 4%. This party was set up by the Kremlin, partly to help give the illusion of ‘pluralism’, but also to act as a “leftish” poll of attraction to undermine the vote for the Communist Party. The last time Mironov stood as candidate for president, he actually announced that he himself would be voting for “the best candidate” – Putin! This time, Mironov announced on post-election TV talk shows that “those voters who voted for my programme were actually voting for Vladimir Putin. I congratulate him on victory”.
How can results be explained?
How can these results be explained, given that there have been four major demonstrations mobilising hundreds of thousands of people in Moscow since December’s fraudulent Parliamentary election? According to opinion polls, up to 42% of the population supports the protests. One poll suggested that 15% of the population is prepared to participate actively in protests. This figure, incidentally, is many times higher than the “middle class” protesters, who according to much of the international media, are supposed to be the only supporters of the opposition protests. Yet the four “anti-Putin” presidential candidates only received 24 million votes, in total.
The votes “for” Putin are made up of three distinct elements. There is undoubtedly a layer of the population, probably between 20 and 30% of the electorate that currently do support Putin. Sections of big business, a large proportion of those who work in the state structures and “ordinary people” across the classes, credit Putin with restoring ‘order’ after the chaos of the 1990s and regard him as a “guarantor of stability”. During his presidential campaign, Putin stepped up the anti-Western, particularly anti-US rhetoric (his supporters equate “democracy” with “neo-liberalism” and “US interests”). At a victory rally in central Moscow on election night, with tears rolling down his cheeks, Putin celebrated his win against “those who want to ‘usurp’ power” and “split the country up”. This will have helped him maintain support of those who may otherwise vote for the far right or the “Communists”.
The second part of the “vote for” Putin is made up of manipulated and fraudulent votes. It is estimated that 15-20% of all votes cast result from the use of the so-called “administrative resource”. Throughout Russia, those who hold power in local and regional governments, and company managements, instruct their staff how to vote. In the run up to voting, instructions go out from the centre defining what percentage of the vote they have to provide. People are told that if they do not vote the right way they will lose their jobs. The widely publicised presence of video cameras in the polling stations, for the first time, probably strengthened this tendency. People who previously dared to defy their bosses in the privacy of the polling booth, may have been more wary in last week’s elections, as they were filmed casting their vote.
This is added to by outright fraud. Again the video cameras do little to prevent this, as the bulk of the manipulation (of the mass media, of candidates etc) takes place before the voting booths open and the fraud takes place after the polls close, during actual counting. A number of organisations have run schemes aimed at monitoring cases of fraud. One is the US-financed Golos organization. But there were also a huge number of volunteer observers who hoped they could ensure “honest elections”. The number of reported frauds (alleged, not proven) is around 6,000. The rate of reporting of alleged frauds increased dramatically as counting started. The implication that votes were being fraudulently added to Putin’s tally is borne out by the conflict between the “exit polls” and declared results. Although the two main exit polls, FOM and VTsIOM, managed to predict the votes for the other four presidential candidates quite accurately, they both underestimated the vote for Putin by 5%.
The practice of “carouselling”, first used in last December’s election, also appears to have been widespread. This involves bussing people (who are paid) from one polling station to another to vote for Putin. To disguise this blatant fraud, it is claimed that they are workers on shifts, who have been brought by the employer during their work breaks to vote en-bloc, as part of electoral lists submitted in addition to the voting register. One such group was filmed assembling at a Moscow airport, where, after receiving about 30 euros, they were shuffled around a number of nearby polling stations.
These methods are in addition to the traditional vote fixing in the more authoritarian regions of the country. In Chechnya, according to the Chechen electoral commission, 99.7% of the electorate, on a 99.6% turnout, voted for Putin, with Zyuganov in second place. This obvious fraud in the North caucuses region alone will have added another 2-3% to Putin’s total vote. In other regions, the vote cast for Putin was between 70% and 90%.
A third element of the support for Putin, however, was the support he won from a layer of potential opposition voters. Comments, such as, “There is no-one I can vote for” and “The opposition will be even worse” were frequently heard from people explaining how they would vote. The Putin camp played successfully on the record of the neo-liberal leaders of the opposition. When they were in power in the 1990s, the neo-liberal politicians were not keen on democracy, to say the least, and oversaw capitalist ‘shock therapy’ that plunged millions into poverty and the enormous enrichment of a clique of oligarchs.
Recently, outgoing President Medvedev actually went so far as admitting that in 1996 Zyuganov actually won the presidential election, although the vote was fixed in Boris Yeltsin’s favour.
It appears that the Communist Party failed to win any extra support to add to the layer of elderly electors that normally vote for the party. This is partly due to the policies Zyuganov used to fight this election – a chauvinist appeal to bring the “Russians” (as opposed to all the other nationalities living in Russia) back to their “rightful place” in the world. Zyuganov also placed himself firmly at a distance from the opposition protests that have rocked Moscow in the past months. He warned outgoing President Medvedev not to allow “the orange leprosy” to take hold, referring to Western supported mass opposition protests in Ukraine in 2004/2005, which alienated a wide layer of protesters. Members of the Communist Party, apart from a few dissident elements, have been noticeable by their absence from the protests.
The leadership of the opposition protests is now going to find that people will question their tactics much more. The idea that Putin could be defeated by voting for any of the other candidates has clearly not worked. From advocating support for non-Putin candidates, Aleksei Navalny, a blogger and one of the opposition ‘leaders’, stated that the elections were “completely illegitimate” (Navalny is a neo-liberal with a strong leaning to the ultra right). The position of the majority of the Left – to vote for either Zyuganov or Mironov – has been shown to be even worse and a blind alley.
The CWI in Russia argued for a boycott of the elections but this was not a call for passivity. On the contrary, the CWI called for the opposition rank and file to mobilize working people and youth, campaigning in workplaces and amongst students, to build genuine committees of action in opposition to the election fraud.
Although this position is a minority view even amongst the Left, it is significant that other groups and campaigns, such as a health service campaign, echoed the CWI call for a boycott of the election in the days running up to the election. The Tatar Social Centre also issued a call to all the non-Russian peoples to boycott the election. They said that after Putin came to power Russia made a sharp turn towards totalitarianism and that political prisoners had again became a feature of life in Tatarstan and Bashkirostan and elsewhere.
The CWI believes the post of President should be abolished. The Duma (parliament) elected last year was also on the basis of fraud. The CWI calls for real democracy – for the convening of a genuinely democratic constituent assembly to which the working class and the oppressed can send their representatives to decide how society should be run. Socialists call for a majority workers’ government with socialist policies. A workers’ government would end poverty, joblessness, homelessness and low pay and carry out massive funding for decent housing, education and health etc.
To work towards this goal, the CWI calls for the creation of independent trade unions and to campaign towards building a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme that can challenge the rule of big business and its representatives in the Kremlin. This entails bringing the country’s vast wealth, including the oil and gas industries, into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management, so that living standards can be transformed.
Opposition calls for new protests
New street protests started just hours after the election results were announced, with 20,000-30,000 gathering in central Moscow on Monday evening, 5 March. Attempts to set up a ‘tent city’ were broken up by riot police, who arrested several hundred mainly young people. But plans are being made for protests this coming weekend.
The CWI will play an active part in opposition demonstrations, advocating that the protest movement appeals to the working class in urban and rural areas to join it. The opposition movement needs to be democratically organized, through the convening of mass assemblies, linked at local, regional and national levels. It must struggle against Putin’s monopoly of power and the mass media and his undemocratic regime, and for real democratic rights and for a free and independent media that is nationalized and democratically-run, so that it is representative of all views in society.
It is still an open question if the planned protests will develop and expand greatly, or whether they will temporarily peter out. But Russia has entered a new phase. Putin will be a much more vulnerable president, this time. For many Russians, he only promises a Brezhnev-style era of stagnation and huge social inequality. The ongoing crisis in the world economy will have big impact on Russia’s oil and gas-dependent economy, which can lead to a fast decline in living standards. Putin’s election win will be seen as a pyrrhic victory. The developing situation in Russia is highly volatile and increasingly will see collisions between the working class and poor and the ruling elite.