RUSSIA VOTES: Kremlin in a panic ahead of Sunday's vote

By bne IntelliNews December 2, 2011

bne -

The Kremlin is panicking ahead of the parliamentary elections on Sunday, December 4, because despite all its administrative power, the campaign to maintain the current ruling team has gone badly wrong.

As bne has said repeatedly, the Duma elections remain the crucial vote for Russia's future. The presidential elections in March next year are a foregone conclusion and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has enough support on the back of his real record of success to walk into the job. The fact there is no credible opponent helps, of course. However, for the plan to work smoothly the Kremlin needs to win a constitutional majority in Sunday's vote, or 66% of the seats (about 62% of the vote). And as things stands, it won't manage that.

Seven parties have entered the race for 450 seats. The seats are allocated on a pro-rata basis to those parties that garner more that 7% of the votes cast nationwide. The allocated seats are then filled by the candidates from the party lists filed with the Central Election Committee at the start of campaign. The State Duma is elected for five years, until December 2017. Only four parties - United Russia, LDPR, Communists, Just Russia - are expected to make it past the 7% threshold.

In recent weeks, reports of illegal manipulation of the press and other dirty tricks have been mounting. Most recently, there were reports that the Kremlin has cut a deal with the leading parties, including the Communists, to allow them to win certain shares of the vote if they don't interfere with the Kremlin's plans for United Russia.

Putin announced in September that he wants to return to his old job as president. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meekly stepped aside and said he would back Putin's bid, taking up the office of prime minister as a reward. bne had been hoping that Putin would stay on as prime minister, because although he would retain his power, the constitution stipulates political power should be concentrated in the Duma because it is an elected body, thus controlling Russia's transformation from the prime minister's office is better than from the president's. Now Putin will have a horrible succession problem when he eventually retires, making a smooth transition to a more democratic Russia much more difficult.

Moreover, ruling Russia by presidential fiat rather than debate amongst parties increases the likelihood of some sort of revolution, as the people are excluded from the political process entirely and have nowhere to blow off steam except on the street.

And there's the problem. United Russia, widely dubbed the "party of crooks and thieves" (and ironically created by unifying two parties created by Putin's nemesis Boris Berezovsky and former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in late 1990s), currently commands about 50% of the vote in the most recent polls. This means that if the Kremlin wants to maintain its constitutional grip on the Duma, it is going to have to indulge in a really big bit of ballot-box stuffing.

The Kremlin is widely believed to have added some 5% to the vote count in the last Duma elections to put it over the constitutional threshold, but the difference then is that most Russians actually voted for United Russia and the fix was small enough that it didn't raise eyebrows.

That won't be true this time round. As bne wrote almost exactly a year ago in a piece called The Gucci Revolution, tensions have clearly been rising as Russians become increasingly dissatisfied with Putin and his team. And that dissatisfaction is becoming increasingly public. Putin looked visibly disconcerted when a crowd booed him at a martial arts event in November, the first time he has faced such public opprobrium since August 2000 at a press conference in St Petersburg when he met with the relatives of the sailors on the sunken Kursk submarine.

Since the "against all" option has been removed from the ballot (which would have stood a good chance of winning significant numbers of seats according to the polls), going into the vote citizens are mulling one of three choices: don't vote at all; spoil their ballot in protest; vote for the Communists who are the only true (but entirely ineffectual) opposition party on the list.

Ironically, the Kremlin is hoping that most voters will choose option one, as a low turnout will make the job of fixing the vote easier. It will also boost United Russia's showing in the poll, because the party's rank and file will do as they are told and turn out to vote in droves; it is the opposition's supporters who are dithering and perhaps won't show up. Here we are on the last working day before the vote and what is remarkable is the total lack of canvassing in Moscow or any activity to rev up voters to cast their ballots on Sunday.

Mismanaged democracy

So how did the Kremlin get into this mess? It seems to have begun with oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov and his Right Cause party, which was designed to appeal to small business owners and the emerging middle classes.

The Kremlin's plan was not actually that bad. Putin has said explicitly his biggest fear is making the same mistake as Mikhail Gorbachev, who introduced political reforms and then followed up with economic reforms that were supposed to make people's lives better, but didn't have enough time to make them work. Putin's plan is to do the economic reforms first, and then gradually introduce the political reforms.

The irony is that the very success Putin has brought about in his first two terms as president are due to these economic reforms. And the upshot is the political and business elite are no longer convinced Russia needs more of the same. This means debate: under Yeltsin politics was all about power, but under Putin it has become about policy.

And that is the purpose of managed democracy. It is a half-way house. Put a ring fence around the political process and keep those that you can't control out, but inside the fence allow loyalists enough freedom so you can have some sort of real debate over policy.

That is where parties like Right Cause come in. It has some real ideas about what to do next (unlike United Russia). The plan was to engineer a significant share of the vote for Prokhorov, probably 10-15%, which was entirely possible given the state's grip on the media. Trouble was, Prokhorov didn't play ball. He quickly made it clear that he had his "own" ideas and wanted to do "real" politics. So he was sacked.

That created a huge problem for Putin. Suddenly he was missing the 10-15% he needs to remain in control of the Duma, as it was clear from the regional elections this spring that United Russia is bankrupt as a political force. So he decided to cut his losses and put himself up as president, intending to force the issue and put United Russia back into power on its own using all the resources at hand.

This was the worse decision of Putin's career. He has badly overestimated the apathy of the Russian voter. The trouble is that thanks to his own successful economic reforms, Russian incomes have risen to the point where they are on a par with the poorer members of the EU. And as the citizenry's time horizon stretches out to several decades, they are increasingly concerned with things like employment, schools and health services - all the normal things that governments are supposed to provide. However, the reforms Putin has put through so far have benefited primarily business. This has benefited the economy, but the people much less. So they want leaders that better reflect their concerns. It is telling that in the new 2012-2014 budget signed into law this week, the plan is to cut spending on education by half while spending on infrastructure continues to run into the tens of billions of dollars.

Shell game

What happens next? There is still a chance that the Kremlin concedes defeat and accepts the real vote count for United Russia, allowing it to win 50%-plus but not 66%. A really good result (relatively speaking of course) would be if opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko or even Right Cause won seats, but this is highly unlikely.

The best we can reasonably hope for now is that United Russia just gets its real 50% of the vote and the Kremlin is satisfied with a simple majority, because artificially adding 15% to the vote count would make the elections a farce obvious to everyone. It would disenfranchise the more liberal Russians and leave them no option other than radicalisation. This is something that Putin has managed to avoid so far. But once the cat is out of the bag, it is impossible to get it back in again - as Leonid Kuchma found to his cost in Ukraine in 2006.

At least with the managed democracy option there is the possibility of gradually allowing some of the parties more freedoms of expression and hence creating a political valve for people to let off steam inside a political structure that's ultimately controlled by the Kremlin. But if United Russia is the sole party of power, this steam blowing will all happen outside the Kremlin's control, which means its only possible response is to crack down - and feed the flames of dissent in the process.

This doesn't mean that there will be a coloured revolution, as happened elsewhere in the CIS. Moscow leads Russia and with the army and police concentrated in Moscow, the Kremlin has full control of the city, so it would be hard for a popular protest movement to get off the ground.

But because Russian politics remains a shell game, the chances that Putin will allow his grip on power to weaken are low. This will leave Putin with no mechanism that would allow him to gradually ease control over the political process in Russia or respond effectively to the people's real demands for change.

Thus the potential for some sort of explosion of public anger rises, and Putin's chances of peacefully surviving in power to 2024 are greatly reduced.

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