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December 8, 2003 by AK

Elections II

Half of the Russian Duma is elected through a proportional vote (party lists), the other through a traditional first-past-the-post system. The way things stand now in the proportional elections, United Russia, Putin’s party, got 37% of the vote. The Communists have 13%; the Liberal Democrats (pseud-ultra-nationalists) follow with 12%. Homeland (Rodina), a more genuinely nationalist party, got 9%. The two reasonably liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, didn’t make it past the 5% minimum. Turnout was just above 55%, the lowest of all times.

Basically, it’s a disaster. United Russia isn’t much of a party, and all its victory means is that Putin’s hands are even freer than before. The Communists performed poorly; I wouldn’t be cheering though, for at least they are in opposition to Putin. The Liberal Democrats, who always end up voting with the government factions, have a great leader, the notorious Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He’s a whore; he’s too given to acting; he’s mentally unstable. Other than that, Zhirinovsky is Russia’s most impressive public politician. Homeland is a new party whose message is double-pronged: divide the spoils from oil exports and support Russian interests everywhere. While there is not that much to divide, more than a decade of continuous national humiliation has fertilized the soil for nationalists of all sorts.

As for the liberal parties, they should blame themselves. My impression is that they have been out of touch with the country, unable to explain the value of their ideas, and divided. The two liberal groups received 8% of the vote together — but this doesn’t count since neither got over 5%. The votes of these 8% will be disregarded. A rather unpleasant, but predictable slap in the face.

The main risk is that Putin’s clique will now move both away from economic reforms and democracy. It’s surprising that, after four stable years of Putin’s presidency, three parties heavily relying on a sense of nationalist resentment and protest (the Communists, LDPR, and Homeland) and lacking a positive economic program, secure 33% — almost as much as Putin’s own party. Putin could interpret it as a sign that, whatever he does with the economy, there are other grievances that count — therefore, it is necessary to address them to keep power; economic reform shouldn’t be given priority.

Putin has quite an electorally appealing personality — a modest, unassuming man who turns out full of various goodness. Russians have little trust in appearance. Putin needs economic growth, of course, and he seems to understand the basics of free markets, but looking at this election’s result, he must be doubting whether voters are taking any notice of the laws he’s been pushing through the old Duma. The humiliation and powerlessness an average Russian citizen must feel when confronted with government bureaucracy and big business almost have to translate into a nationalistic/egalitarian mix. As a result, voters instinctively support Putin when he barks at a European journalist questioning his Chechen strategy, but when Putin’s aide defends a judicial reform bill in the Duma — a bill that should ideally help alleviate that underlying powerlessness — people hopelessly wave hands: ah, that won’t help. Putin might wave his hand, too, and just do what voters have so loudly said they want. It’s a black day for non-populist politics.

I haven’t felt so depressed since 1993, when LDPR got 25%; but the Union of Right Forces’ predecessor got about a quarter, too. What have we achieved since?


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