Ben Aris in Berlin -
The pro-presidential party United Russia has hit a new high in opinion polls on the eve of regional parliamentary elections next month, which are seen as a dry run for crucial national elections at the end of this year.
The compliant United Russia is widely expected to walk the parliamentary elections this December and cement the Kremlin's control over Russia's political system; the only question is just how big a margin it will take in the new Duma.
On March 11, Russia will vote for new deputies in a number of regional parliaments (a function of Russia's complicated regional political structure, which gives some regions more autonomy from the centre than others) that is seen as a preview for the national elections at the end of this year.
Voter support for United Russia has climbed to over 30% for the first time in three years, according to a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation. The support ratings of United Russia's rivals are several times lower.
Respondents were asked how they would vote if parliamentary elections were held this week: 31% said they would vote for United Russia; 7% would vote for the Communist Party; and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) was third with 5%, not enough to clear the 7% threshold to enter the Duma.
Based on those results, United Russia is set to tighten its stranglehold over the Duma. It already controls the Duma, the lower house of parliament, as well as sporting 69 regional leaders from a total of 88.
The regional parliamentary elections are important, as the winning party has the right to propose candidates to represent the region in the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, to the President.
Candidate registration for elections in 14 Russian regions holding elections on March 11 closed last week and United Russia, the Communist Party, Just Russia, Patriots of Russia, and the LDPR have all successfully registered for the competition in all the regions. Minor parties are putting up candidates in a handful of the regions.
The just left party
United Russia will almost certainly sweep the elections, but analysts will be watching closely to see how the Kremlin's newly created party, Just Russia, (Spravedlivaya Rossiya) will perform in its first real test.
Set up last year, Just Russia was designed to steal votes from the flagging Communist party and to provide a left-leading alternative to United Russia. However, the newly minted party is facing several challenges: it enjoyed the support of only 4% of the population, according to polls last autumn, not enough to enter the Duma, and more recently it's facing real competition from the independent Patriots of Russia party.
The Communists had some problems in the qualification stage, but managed to get their candidate registered and even they themselves admit to getting "some help from the top." Experts say the Kremlin still finds the moderate opposition of Gennadi Zyuganov's Communist party useful, if only because disqualifying the party would send many of their die-hard supports to more radical parties, or join the ranks of popular protest groups.
The Patriots of Russia party could be a surprise upset for the Kremlin's hopes to sweep the polls with its two tame political parties. Led by Gennady Semigin, Patriots submitted candidate lists in 12 regions and has been registered in 11 of the 14 races.
While the party has no hope of winning the race, Patriots is vying for a chance to become the fifth and final party to enter the Duma in December, which would make it a real, if weak, political force in Russia. The party took part in five out of eight regional elections in March 2006, and seven out of nine in October 2006, but only managed to get past the 7% threshold in one region - the Kaliningrad region, with 7.15% of the vote.
Patriots is hoping for a better showing in these elections and has reinforced its ranks with some former members of Motherland and the Party of Pensioners, who refused to join Just Russia. The entire Moscow regional branch of the Party of Pensioners joined Patriots in late 2006, and so did almost all the leaders of the St Petersburg branch of Motherland.
Also, rumours in Moscow say that the party may get caught up in in-fighting amongst the so called Kremlin clique, the siloviki, who want a lever of power beyond the United Russia/Just Russia duopoly and that Patriots may, as a result, receive some of the all-important administrative resources in its election bid.
The regional elections are also likely to be the death knell for the liberal right. Having failed to united or score any significant results in previous elections, the liberal right is looking fragmented and spent.
The Union of Right Forces (SPS) performed reasonably well in the Perm territory's parliamentary election in December by coming second to United Russia, with 16.35% of the vote. However, despite submitting candidates in 13 of the 14 regions up for grabs, it only managed to get eight registered. SPS claim the Kremlin has deliberately excluded the party from the race.
However, experts say the party had virtually no chance of clearing the 7% threshold in the five regions where its candidates failed to register; the party scored less than 4% in each of these regions in the 2003 parliamentary elections. The party has some chance of clearing the minimum vote hurdle in the more prosperous regions where it has candidates: Moscow, St Petersburg, the Leningrad region, the Omsk region, and the Tomsk region.
Yabloko is the other leading liberal party, but has been having funding problems and is only fielding candidates in four of the 14 regions in March. In many of the other regions the party was simply unable to collect enough signatures to qualify for the elections, quite apart from any cloak and dagger action by the Kremlin.
The People's Will party, led by Sergei Baburin, is competing in only three regions. The Democratic Party of Russia, the Agrarian Party, and the Socialist United Party are competing in two regions each.
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