Duma Election - December 2007
Putin told cheering United Russia delegates on 01 October 2007 that he would head the party's list of candidates for December's elections to the State Duma and that he would consider becoming prime minister in the future. The move sparked a wave of speculation that a new, powerful, super-prime minister's office would soon displace the presidency as Russia's key power center.
By turning the 2007 election into a referendum on Putin, the Kremlin sharply curtailed the potential for a viable political opposition to emerge. With United Russia expected to pull down 60-75 percent of the vote, the Communists a reliable 10-15 percent (if not higher), and ten small parties eating up at least 8 percent of the vote, the question remained whether Zhirinovskiy can flog his brand of outrageous nationalism across the 7 percent threshold, when polls had him holding at a steady four-five percent.
All but vanquished was the notion of an "official" opposition party that would serve as a refuge for second-tier elites and provide for limited elite competition, with Just Russia's Mironov allegedly conceding to political allies that he was "outsmarted by (Kremlin ideological chief) Surkov." Just Russia faced a hemorrhaging of regional elites, with angry supporters allegedly seeking refunds on their purchases of prime party list slots.
In the election in 2007 United Russia won 64 percent of the vote. Between the 2003 election and mid-2006, United Russia gained 87 seats as delegates switched party allegiance. In 2006 United Russia had 309 seats; the Communist Party, 45 seats; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, 35 seats; the Motherland bloc of regional parties, 29 seats; and the People's Party, 12 seats. Independents held 18 seats, and two seats were vacant. Some 45 members of the Duma and six of the Federation Council were women.
Laws enacted in 2005 and 2006, particularly those eliminating direct gubernatorial elections, contributed to the consolidation of the government's political power. National electoral reforms in 2005, all aiming to reduce opposition party strength, increased the minimum vote percentage required for a party to be represented in the Duma from 5 to 7 percent, prohibited parties from forming electoral coalitions, and stiffened party registration requirements. The changes worked to the advantage of parties already represented in the State Duma, particularly the propresidential United Russia, and had the effect of reducing the number of competitive parties. The electoral law also bans nonpartisan domestic observation of federal elections, which makes it difficult for NGOs to observe elections. In 2006 the single-member constituencies that had elected half (225) of the Duma members were abolished, instead awarding all seats according to national party vote totals and eliminating the possibility of independents gaining seats.
The 02 December 2007 Duma elections was not about a new parliament, but about Putin and the quantitative mandate that he seeks in order to legitimize his continued influence over the Russian body politic after he stepped down from the presidency in May 2008. The outcome was largely foreordained and backed up by professional polling data: a lopsided win by the ruling United Russia party and a second place finish by the Communist Party, with one or two pro-Putin "opposition" parties perhaps limping across the seven percent threshold. The magnitude -- and not the fact -- of the United Russia win was the story, and the plotline was dominated by the question of how successful Putin would be in transferring his sky-high popularity ratings to a lackluster political party, which he himself had derided as "not great, but the best we have."
In terms of democratic political development, this election was retrograde: a step away from the development of coherent political parties. The storyline could have been different. Until Putin's surprise decision in early October 2007 to lead United Russia into the polls, this election was about the emergence of the Kremlin-blessed Just Russia opposition party, whose message of social justice could have challenged the Communists' lock on the left-leaning electorate; for a brief few months, there was the beginnings of elite competition between Just Russia and United Russia. During this interregnum, United Russia moderates spoke optimistically about building credible and more European-looking political parties, and Kremlin spin-meisters even saw room for a liberal party in the Duma mix, with the more compliant Union of Right Forces reaching what it thought was a firm deal with the Kremlin for its share of administrative resources.
When Putin changed his mind, and linked his future political fate with United Russia, official encouragement of political competition, as well as any tolerance towards liberal parties critical of the Putin, evaporated. A mini-cult of personality campaign quickly took off, embarrassing to the liberal Russian elite, but apparently popular (or at least palatable) among the masses. Part Madison Avenue (slick television ads, a US-styled convention replete with shimmying girl bands and film idols) and part Communist-era nostalgia (milkmaids, Communist youth camp songs, public paeans and "spontaneous" demonstrations in support of the great leader), Putin's campaign literally dominated the landscape -- with the "Putin's Plan -- Russia's Victory" campaign poster omnipresent throughout Russia's eleven time zones.
No one, not even the fiercest critic of the Kremlin, believed that Putin -- or his designated political vehicle, United Russia -- faced any credible threat from any pole on the political spectrum. Public complacency and a craving for "normalcy" reign, fed by eight years of uninterrupted economic growth, full coffers, and the pride associated with Russia's reemergence as a major global player. The Kremlin was able to ignore the biting liberal critique of Putin's democratic retrenchment, rising corruption, and state corporatism, because liberal politicians spent their time devouring each other, fighting ideological battles from the 1990's, flirting with compacts with Putin, and resolutely refusing to unite behind one party. As one independent editor put it: "the liberals have no instinct for survival." On the other end of the spectrum, the Communists remain locked in the past, with party leader Zyuganov taking no steps to modernize his message or to expand his vote bank beyond the cohort of loyal pensioners. During the previous eight years, Zyuganov delivered the Communist vote on almost every legislative issue of importance to Putin and Putin returned the favor by rarely criticizing Zyuganov directly.
While Putin's win reflected the legitimate choice of Russia's voters, the size of his majority did not. As in 2003, the Duma campaign was distinguished by the blatant use of administrative resources, the ruling party's domination of the state-controlled television, and the use of "black PR" against opposition candidates, as well as covert restrictions placed on their ability to campaign (e.g., the frequent cancellation of conference halls due to last-minute "repairs" or "electricity outages"). Credible reports indicate that governors (65 of whom head United Russia regional party lists), mayors and others in the official food chain were under pressure to deliver 70 percent of the voters to United Russia, with the ethnic republics anxious to overfulfill the plan. (Chechen President Kadyrov has boasted publicly that Putin will receive 100 percent of his republic's votes.) In this mix, even the criticism of the statistically imperceptible Other Russia opposition movement led by Garry Kasparov, who did not have a political party to challenge Putin, proved intolerable.
The December State Duma elections were marked with apparent fraud in many of the North Caucasus republics and other regions. In the 2005 election, the Council of Europe alleged that the official voter turnout numbers were artificially high and this trend reportedly continued in 2007 elections. Chechnya reported 99.5 percent voter turnout, with 99.5 percent of the votes going to the United Russia party; Ingushetiya reported 98.3 percent voter turnout, with 98.8 percent of the votes for United Russia; and Kabardino-Balkaria reported 97 percent turnout, with 96.5 percent of the votes for United Russia. In Ingushetia, with 159,000 registered voters, a protest movement called "I did not vote" collected 87,340 signatures from registered voters who said that they had not voted in the December elections.
International observers concluded that the elections were not fair and failed to meet standards for democratic elections. After the Central Election Commission placed delays and unprecedented restrictions on the number of international observers, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) decided it was not able to send an observer mission. A team of parliamentarians from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, and the Nordic Council observed the elections. The teams concluded that the elections were "not fair and failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections." They noted that the elections took place in an atmosphere which seriously limited political competition. Frequent abuses of administrative resources, media coverage strongly in favor of United Russia, and the revised election code combined to hinder political pluralism.
The OSCE representative on freedom of the media reported numerous media freedom violations during the elections, including harassment of media outlets, legislative limitations, and media bias in political coverage, which prevented equal media access. Even though some of its observers were impeded, the voter-rights NGO GOLOS reported numerous electoral violations and problems including an "unprecedented" amount of absentee ballots, collective voting under pressure, multiple voting by the same voters, and vote counting violations. GOLOS observers, however, reported good organization of voting procedures and that secrecy of voting was mostly observed.
The government exerted its influence most directly on state-owned media. Journalists and news anchors of Rossiya and First Channel reported receiving "guidelines" from management prepared by the presidential administration, indicating which politicians they should support and which they should criticize. Government-controlled media exhibited considerable bias in favor of President Putin. In the campaign before the December parliamentary elections, state-controlled print and broadcast media resources overwhelmingly favored United Russia, President Putin's party, to the exclusion of other opposition parties.
The pro-Putin "opposition" LDPR and Just Russia secured their minimum seven percent, reflecting Kremlin sensitivities over not appearing to be "another Kazakhstan." According to polling data, both parties were hovering within statistical reach (LDPR at 6 percent; Just Russia at 4 percent). Whether the Kremlin could walk (promote Putin) and chew gum (provide some dollops of electoral support to LDPR and Just Russia) at the same time remained a question mark.
The Duma outcome set the stage for Putin's designation of a presidential successor, whose nomination can come no later than December 23. The presumption had always been that Putin would "anoint" a successor, and polls consistently supported that a majority of Russians would vote for whomever he designated. However, the Duma elections added legitimacy to Putin's centrality in the process and provided an institutional veneer. There were rumors that Putin might use United Russia's constitutional majority to create a parliamentary system.
At a December 3 press conference, the Central Election Commission reported that, with 98 percent of the votes counted, United Russia has won 64.1 percent of the votes, the KPRF 11.6 percent, Zhirinovskiy's Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR): 8.2 percent, and Just Russia (SR): 7.8 percent. United Russia expected 315 seats (up from an initial estimate of 313); the KPRF 57 seats; LDP expected 40 (down from the initial estimate of 49 seats); and SR expected 38 seats. The remaining seven parties that participated in the elections together received less than nine percent of the total votes cast and none passed the seven percent threshold to representation in the Duma, meaning that seats represented by these votes will be distributed among the victorious parties. To add insult to injury, opposition parties Yabloko and SPS did not receive the four percent of the vote necessary to qualify for refund of the deposit they paid to the CEC in order to participate in the elections and to qualify for federal funding. They will also be forced to reimburse state media for the radio and television time provided to them.
The dominant pro-presidential United Russia party received more than two-thirds of the seats in the December 2007 State Duma elections and its candidate, Dmitriy Medvedev, received more than 70 percent of the vote in the March 2008 presidential elections. Both elections were marked by abuses of administrative resources and media bias, denial of registration of opposition parties and candidates, and ballot fraud. While it is easy to give too much credit to Kremlin machinations, the fact that the electoral needle was threaded so perfectly, so as to provide United Russia with the percentage win that would just translate into a constitutional majority is viewed by skeptics as too much of a coincidence.
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