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TOL on United Russia’s Identity Crisis

moonshine1126.jpgTransitions Online has been putting out some great material on the Russian elections lately, including today’s article by Ilya Tarasov and Peter Rutland about United Russia: “But the party now faces an identity crisis of sorts. It was created by the Kremlin elite to gain control over the legislature and prevent it from interfering with the president’s agenda. That task completed, United Russia is at a loose end. In order to find a role in Russia’s evolving political system, United Russia must change from a “party of power” into a genuine ruling party. Otherwise, it will become irrelevant and even counterproductive for the political elite. It will fall prey to creeping bureaucratization and will become less attractive to its supporters. At the same time, if it continues as a party of power the legislature will become an even emptier shell, a mere extension of the presidential administration. The social-political forces that found expression through the electoral process will be driven elsewhere – onto the streets. The very image of a party of power is a liability, a reminder for the ordinary people that they are ruled by an elite.”

From Transitions Online:

United Russia’s Second Actby Ilya Tarasov and Peter RutlandPutin’s party must figure out a role for itself beyond merely holding on to power.At first glance, the political prospects for the United Russia party could hardly be better. It had the support of a majority of the electorate even before President Vladimir Putin told the party congress on 1 October that he was willing to put his name at the top of the list for the State Duma elections. That, and the weakness of the competing parties, assures United Russia of a commanding victory in the 2 December election.Two previous attempts to forge a “party of power” had ended in failure. Russia’s Choice, created in 1993, and Our Home is Russia, formed in 1995, managed to attract the support of only 15 percent and 10 percent of the electorate, respectively. Both parties quietly exited from the political stage before the next parliamentary elections came around. United Russia has been much more successful, winning 37 percent of the party-list vote in the 2003 elections and gaining a total of 305 of the 450 seats in the Duma.“I am a citizen, I vote”: A sign in the Moscow metro urges Russians to go to the polls on 2 December. Photo by Andy Markowitz.But the party now faces an identity crisis of sorts. It was created by the Kremlin elite to gain control over the legislature and prevent it from interfering with the president’s agenda. That task completed, United Russia is at a loose end. In order to find a role in Russia’s evolving political system, United Russia must change from a “party of power” into a genuine ruling party. Otherwise, it will become irrelevant and even counterproductive for the political elite. It will fall prey to creeping bureaucratization and will become less attractive to its supporters. At the same time, if it continues as a party of power the legislature will become an even emptier shell, a mere extension of the presidential administration. The social-political forces that found expression through the electoral process will be driven elsewhere – onto the streets. The very image of a party of power is a liability, a reminder for the ordinary people that they are ruled by an elite.Thus United Russia faces the challenge of turning itself from an instrument of the Kremlin into an independent and legitimate political entity. At the moment the party is poised between these two quite distinct roles. The latest Levada Center poll found that 38 percent of respondents regard the party as an instrument of Putin, and 40 percent see it as an independent force. It is not clear whether the current leadership is up to the task – or whether the Kremlin elite will see that it is in their own long-term interests to oversee such a transition.TEETERING ON A NARROW BASEUnited Russia is assured of a victory in the upcoming election. The LevadaCenter found the proportion of respondents intending to vote for the party rose from 55 percent in September to 68 percent in October (after Putin’s declaration to stand as the party’s top candidate); while the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found a similar rise from 47 percent to 54 percent. The Public Opinion Fund came up with a lower estimate – 36 percent – in September, rising to 44 percent in October. Still, it’s not at all clear that United Russia will manage to maintain the two-thirds majority it currently enjoys (and which is necessary to pass constitutional amendments). United Russia was scoring below 50 percent in most of the recent regional elections.One source of uncertainty is voter turnout. With the election a foregone conclusion, United Russia supporters may stay home, while diehard oppositionists are more likely to vote. Turnout has steadily slid in Russian parliamentary elections, from a peak of 64.7 percent in 1995 to 61.9 percent in 1999 and 55.8 percent in 2003. Polls suggest that turnout next month may dip below 50 percent. Such a low turnout decreases the reliability of pre-election polling and increases the unpredictability of the election itself. It also further undermines the legitimacy of the legislature, which is pretty low to begin with. In a recent VTsIOM poll only 39 percent said they regarded the Duma elections as free and fair.The current composition of the party reflects its narrow focus. United Russia claims 1.7 million members, 59 percent of whom are service employees, probably working for state agencies. Many of the remainder, such as pensioners and students, depend on the state for their income. These voters form a solidly loyal bloc – although problems with the provision of state services could alienate them. (It is no coincidence that reform of public utilities and the electricity system is being pushed back until after this electoral cycle.) The party clearly needs to widen its social base and to attract more charismatic leaders at the national level.The ideology of the party is an uneasy mixture of conservatism and anti-communism, reflective of the values of the post-Soviet bureaucracy that spawned it. The party is trying to mobilize around the slogan “Putin’s Plan: a worthy future for a great country.” The idea is a society united behind the leader pursuing the goal of growth, based on natural resources and intellectual innovation. The specifics of the program are targeted at existing United Russia supporters – the military, state officials, low-income families. The main challenge to United Russia nowadays is not the Communists, but populists able to play on voters’ fears about immigration, corruption, poor social services, or rising food prices.Perhaps United Russia will try to carve out a new role as a leading party by initiating some constitutional changes. The best thing for the party would be a shift to a parliamentary form of government, with a prime minister coming out of the leadership of the largest party in the State Duma. Constitutional revisions would be needed to define a new balance of powers between the prime minister and the president. Obviously much depends on Putin. If he decides to return to the presidency then he will not want to share power with a prime minister, even one from United Russia.But if the parliamentary scenario came to pass, it could be followed by the reintroduction of direct elections for the upper house of parliament (Federation Council) and regional governors, which in turn would change the dynamic of the Russian political system and help turn United Russia into a genuine political party. It could then play an active and independent role in selecting new leaders, dispensing patronage, and listening to popular demands – functions now largely monopolized by the Kremlin bureaucracy. Of course, such responsiveness usually results from real electoral competition, which is now lacking.A parliament in which one party dominates others is, after all, the form of government adopted by most societies around the world today, including democracies as diverse as Japan, India, and Sweden. But this will materialize only if United Russia functions as an electoral party and is encouraged to sink deep roots into society and respond to its changing demands. Putin himself told a discussion forum on 14 September, “We are developing a multiparty system. I’ve been thinking a lot about how Russia should be governed after 2008. I see no solution other than democracy and a multiparty system. We are not inventing our own Russian wheel or our own moonshine democracy.”