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Newly-Elected Duma Unlikely to Challenge Putin, Analysts Say - 2003-12-11

The main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, scored a decisive victory in last Sunday's parliamentary elections. That gives President Vladimir Putin an obedient legislature that, analysts say, is unlikely to challenge his program. If the preliminary results hold, two Western-oriented parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), will be voted out of the Duma, or lower house.

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a parliamentary party loyal to the Kremlin is projected to seize an outright majority in the Duma.

United Russia is a grouping of politicians, ministers and business executives, linked more by their support for President Vladimir Putin than by any specific ideology. The party is projected to win 37 percent of the votes for the lower of house of parliament. That would give it as many as 229 seats in the 450-seat Duma, and allow President Putin to rewrite the Russian constitution, if he chooses. It also clears Mr. Putin's political path to re-election next March.

The Communists appear in a dead heat for second place with the Liberal Democratic Party, the ultra-nationalists, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Not far behind, is a new party, Rodina, or Motherland, which was created just months before the election with open backing from the Kremlin as a means to drain support from the Communists.

Under Russia's electoral laws, half the Duma seats are filled by parties, and the others are given to the winners of local district races, who may or may not be affiliated with a party. United Russia supporters are predicted to sweep the individual races, as well.

Michael McFaul is a leading Russian scholar from Stanford University, who is serving as part of the Carnegie Moscow Center's election team. He told a recent news conference in Moscow that the results reflect a period of big change for Russia, and not necessarily for the better.

"The state here is playing a much greater role in determining who wins than it has in the past, and that's not good for democracy in Russia,"said Mr. McFaul. "Two, the kinds of parties that are winning are kind of nationalist parties, whereas the parties that are losing are liberal, democratic and, I would even say, pro-Western, pro-American parties. That also is not a good thing for American interests, and not a good thing, I would say, for Russian democracy."

Mr. McFaul says he was not particularly surprised by the results, given President Putin's consistently high approval ratings of 75 percent. But he says he was surprised by the rise of nationalist parties.

Marshall Goldman is the associate director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University in Boston. Also a professor of Russian economics, Mr. Goldman says the results suggest a weakening in Russia's democratic and economic reform.

"I think it is quite a step backward," Mr. Goldman said. "Many people who voted were urged to vote for [Mr.] Putin, or for the party of United Russia, on the rationalization that this would help push through economic reforms. But, I think that's misleading, first of all, because the Duma that has been in power for the last four years has been very cooperative in pushing through economic reforms, and the obstacle of implementing those reforms has not been a failure to have more laws, but the bureaucracy. And the bureaucracy now is going to read the election results as giving them even more power, and so there will be even more obstruction."

Mr. Goldman says that means economic reform in Russia could stall.

Analyst Thomas Remington, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, was even more critical in his assessment of the election results. He says particularly worrisome is the demise of effective opposition.

"It [Russia] has some forms of a democracy. It has some elements of a democracy. But, the trend of development in Russia is moving away from democracy, and that's been true for the last several years. More and more, authoritarian elements are coming to dominate the way politics works. This election is going to reinforce that by contributing to the loss of the opposition's ability to use the parliament as a kind of forum, or tribune, for opposing the president, or scrutinizing the president, or offering alternative proposals to what the president wants."

Mr. Remington says that means what the Russian public will get is a very conservative parliament that is extremely supportive of President Putin.

Michael McFaul with the Carnegie Moscow Center election team agrees.

"In my own opinion, Mr. Putin is a control-freak," said Mr. McFaul. "He didn't need to do the things that they did to influence this election. He would have had a majority there [in the Duma], but he doesn't like any independent opposition. And before, the Duma was a quasi-independent place, where sometimes there was criticism. He [Mr. Putin] doesn't like that, and so he squashed it."

Analyst Remington says, with potential opponents out of the way, President Putin will be free to consolidate more power in the hands of the Kremlin, and impose even tighter controls on potential detractors, such as the media.

The parliamentary elections themselves raised serious concerns among both Russian and international observers.

The Russian association, Voice for the Protection of Voters' Rights, reported numerous irregularities, such as inaccurate counting, error-filled voter lists and lack of transparency. The group, which had 4500 observers deployed in 20 electoral districts on polling day, says the violations cast suspicion on the fairness of the vote.

Earlier in the week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that misuse of state administrative resources and systematic media bias in favor of United Russia had overwhelmingly distorted the outcome.

Both groups say they will continue to analyze the findings and investigate potential allegations.

As it stands now, analysts say the elections appear to have given President Putin a free-hand to run Russia as he sees fit and that, they say, is a worrying prospect.