Russian Elections 2011: United Russia to hold on to power but could be slipping

President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s close association with ruling party United Russia could be problematic. EPA/EKaterina Shtukina/Ria Novosti/Kremlin Pool Mandatory Credit

This weekend nation-wide elections will select 450 deputies to the lower house of the Russian bicameral parliament, the State Duma.

Although a win is likely for the ruling party, United Russia, lead by President Dmitry Medvedev, the main intrigue of the upcoming elections is how much their large majority, which allows them to rule without consensus, will slip.

If the party’s deteriorating image continues, this could affect Prime MinisterVladimir Putin‘s campaign at next year’s presidential elections.

The Duma

In the Russian Duma, candidates can only be nominated by registered political parties. Independent candidates, the formation of electoral blocs and alliances are not allowed. Parties need to achieve at least seven per cent of the total vote to be represented in the parliament.

Although there are seven federal political parties contesting seats, only four are likely to clear the seven per cent barrier. These include the ruling United Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal-Democratic Party of the Russian Federation, and Just Russia – the same four represented in the outgoing Duma.

The Duma elected in 2007 was dominated by United Russia which had 315 MPs (70 per cent of all seats) compared to 57 from the Communist Party, 40 from the Liberal-Democratic party, and 38 from Just Russia.

At the beginning of the electoral campaign, United Russia’s popularity rating hovered in the region of 43-45 per cent. It was haemorrhaging votes to its three main opponents who represent the ideological left, nationalists, and a loose assortment of pensioners, environmentalists and anti-globalists respectively.

The party of power or crooks?

United Russia is commonly known as the “party of power” in Russia. Although its public statements refer to “conservatism” and “socially responsible” capitalism as the party’s foundation, its true objective is to support the President of Russia. The party line then twists and turns in accordance with the Kremlin’s whim.

Its membership draws heavily from officials at the federal, regional and local levels. President Medvedev heads the party list in the elections.

The personal popularity of Medvedev and especially Putin is United Russia’s most important political resource.

Conversely, United Russia’s poor public image can reflect badly on Russia’s executive. The relative decline in the party’s fortunes stems primarily from its failure to tackle corruption through legislative means.

In fact, opposition parties have been successful in painting United Russia as the epitome of corruption itself. “The party of crooks and thieves” has become a ubiquitous meme in the Russian non-state controlled mass media and particularly in the blogosphere.

Campaign tactics

Medvedev has not nominated for next year’s presidential elections, allowing Putin to run as United Russia’s candidate. EPA/Maxim Shipenkov

In recent weeks, the Kremlin has gone to extraordinary lengths to bolster their party’s chances. For the first time United Russia held American-style primaries to co-opt untainted and capable non-party members as candidates in the party’s electoral list.

Putin and Medvedev have announced a series of initiatives and made high-impact speeches designed to steal the thunder from their opponents’ electoral programs.

Since October 2011, Putin has been promoting the idea of a Eurasian Union in the former Soviet Union, strongly reminiscent of the Communist Party’s agenda of restoring the USSR.

On November 23, Medvedev launched a visceral attack on US plans to develop anti-ballistic missile defence systems in Europe, calling into question the “reset” of relations between Moscow and Washington dating to 2010.

Starting fresh

In a reversal of its declared stance against Russian ethnic chauvinism, United Russia has reached out to moderate nationalist politicians. At last month’s United Russia congress, Medvedev and Putin issued a kind of collective mea culpa and promised to bring the party back into line with the hopes, needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens.

Coupled with an expensive and sophisticated advertising campaign and colossal pork-barrelling (for instance, Medvedev has just announced a three-fold increase in payments to military personnel), this mobilisation effort has had the desired result.

Latest opinion polls show that on December 4, United Russia will garner more than half of the vote, retaining its absolute majority in the Duma.

However, it stands to lose the two thirds qualified majority in the chamber which enabled it to pass legislation at will, ignoring other parties’ views.

Caution advised

The predictability of the December 4 elections denotes the stable nature of Russia’s political system as it emerged from the rubble of the Yeltsin era.

However, the results will nonetheless remind Putin, who is preparing to run for presidency again in March 2012, that his past achievements and his credit with the voters are not limitless.

The current electoral fatigue with United Russia may turn into genuine dissatisfaction with his government unless the long-promised reforms tackling corruption and ensuring justice across society become reality.