RUSSIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS

The parliamentary elections that took place in Russia will I suspect one day be seen as the moment when western reporting of Russia tipped over from the merely mendacious to the completely delusional.  Reading western newspapers one would think that Russia is in a state of imminent revolution following a falsified election, which nonetheless recorded a massive slump in support for its government.

The reality is that this is the first fully free election held in Russian history, which has not been held in conditions of crisis.  The government party won a convincing victory but there has also been a significant and probably permanent swing to the left.  Support for the government party fell from the previous election in 2007 but that was to be expected given the very unusual circumstances in which that earlier election had been fought.  Russia was then on the brink of a transition with Putin ceding the Presidency to Medvedev who was untested and little known. Disputed elections in the Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrghyzia and Serbia had been used as a pretext to stage colour revolutions.  There were also serious foreign policy challenges with the Bush administration pushing to admit the Ukraine and Georgia to the NATO membership programme and planning to install interceptor missiles in eastern Europe. A strong government majority in the parliament was therefore deemed essential.  Putin accordingly took direct charge of the election campaign.  The stops were pulled out and the Russian electorate, which is sophisticated and mature, understanding the urgency gave the government party an overwhelming mandate with 64% of the vote.

The situation this year is completely different.  Putin is returning to the Presidency and there is no transition.  The colour revolutions are discredited.  The attempt to bring the Ukraine and Georgia into NATO has been seen off.  Russia has even managed to gain entry to the World Trade Organisation on favourable terms.  Not surprisingly with the return to more normal politics the vote for the government party has fallen from a lopsided 64% to a still impressive 49%.  This is still substantially more than the 37% the governing party had won in the parliamentary election of 2003, which it was deemed to have won. 

Whilst this is the main result of the election there are a number of other things that can be said about it:

1. Notwithstanding ritual criticisms of the elections by some people in the west and some of the opposition parties there is no reason to doubt the overall honesty of the election and of the results.  The outcome is consistent with pre election opinion polls and with the two big exit polls.  Whilst there may have been a number of violations in a number of places they cannot therefore have been on such a scale as to affect the overall result.  Nor has there been any significant alienation from the election process as some western media commentators allege.  The Times has claimed in an editorial that due to pervasive cynicism turnout has been much lower this year but in reality at 60% turnout is roughly at the same level as it was in 2007 when it was 63%. 

2. There is nothing in these elections that suggests that Putin will have any difficulty winning the Presidential election next year.  His popularity has consistently been greater than the government party’s, which nonetheless won 49% of the vote.  He should therefore have no difficulty obtaining the 50% he needs to win the election without a run off.

3. The big winners in the election were the two left wing parties, the Communist Party and A Just Russia.  The latter is a socialist party but one which judging from its programme (which calls for selective nationalisation and a progressive tax system to equalise incomes) is considerably to the left of socialist or social democratic parties in western Europe. 

The Communist Party increased its share of the vote from 11% to 19% and A Just Russia from just under 8% to 13%.  It seems both parties were successful in winning over large numbers of young voters.  The western media and what passes for liberal opinion in Russia largely ignores these parties and is writing off their increased vote as a protest vote.  Such a view is unwarranted and anyway fails to explain why if there was a protest vote the beneficiaries should have been these two parties rather than the two liberal parties that fought the election, Yabloko and Right Cause, which the western media and liberal opinion broadly support.  If Putin and the government were facing an uprising by an irate middle class angry about its loss of freedom, as much of the western media claims, then it should have been the liberal parties that ought logically to have been the beneficiaries of the protest vote.

4. The vote for Yabloko and Right Cause was derisory.  Yabloko is the more left wing of the various liberal groups and parties and was led in this election by its founder Grigori Yavlinsky, who is the only liberal politician to have come out of the 1990s with honour.  Despite this Yabloko’s share of the vote was just over 3%.  The more right wing, business oriented, free market supporting Right Cause managed just 0.6%.

The failure of the liberal parties is usually explained in the west by supposedly unfair media coverage.  The truth is the diametric opposite.  Though the liberal parties have failed to win as much 4% of the total vote they receive a totally disproportionate amount of attention in both the Russian and the western media and on the internet.  They get far more attention than does the Communist Party even though it gets five times their number of votes. 

 I recently read somewhere that the total liberal electorate in Russia is 15% of the total electorate.  There is no support for this claim from these election results or indeed from the results of previous elections and this claim appears to have no basis.

5. A constant western media trope in reporting Russia, which also from time to time finds its way into the Russian media, is of the supposed rise of the nationalist ultra right.  A huge amount of attention is devoted to this phenomenon.  Protests last year by football fans were reported in connection with it and a supposed anti immigration mood allegedly sweeping the country has been talked about in lurid terms. 

Nothing in these elections gives support to these fears.  The one party that seems to have made an effort to pander to this supposed nationalist mood was Zhirinovsky’s misnamed Liberal Democratic Party.  Significantly of the three opposiiton parties in the Russian parliament Zhirinovsky’s party was the party that made the least progress, increasing its share of the vote from 9% to 11%.  This figure of 11% is the same as the one it achieved in the parliamentary elections of 2003 whereas the other two opposition parties have substantially improved on the share of the vote they achieved in that year.  In other words unlike the other two opposition parties in the parliament Zhirinovsky’s party is standing still. 

There undoubtedly are some dangerous and racist individuals in Russia as there are in every country but on the evidence of this election the spectre of a large and sinister nationalist ultra right movement is revealed as largely a figment of the imagination of the reporters who write about it. 

In other words what this election shows is that Russia is roughly evenly divided between a large block of conservative voters who are not right wing but who are patriotic and who favour stability and who can be relied upon to support the government and another rather smaller block of voters, which is more idealistic and which consciously adheres to or is attracted by socialist ideas.  

As a force of unideological conservatism the party that  represents the first block, the governing party United Russia, will never arouse much in the way of enthusiasm.  It will always be a but for criticism especially on the part of younger people.  This should not however blind one to its underlying strengths, which explain its presently dominant position in Russian politics.

Russian political activism has however not gone away.  Talk of stagnation (a nebulous concept at best) is misplaced.  That activism is however to be found on the left.  This incidentally has been broadly true in Russia since the Nineteenth Century.  Since the conservative block that governs the country has no ideology of its own it is receptive to ideas coming from the left.  The result is that all the major parties in Russia are now broadly committed to a similar range of policies that could be broadly defined certainly in western terms as left wing.  These include a strong welfare system, strong employment protection rights, an active role for the state in economy, free state provided health and education (up to school level), the introduction of a progressive system of taxation, greater provision of kindergartens and child care facilities and the political and economic reintegration and possibly eventual reunification of the former Soviet space.    

As for the sort of right wing, free market, neo liberal ideas that have become the orthodoxies in the US and Britain and indeed elsewhere in the west, the abysmal electoral showing of the liberal parties that support these ideas shows that there is no significant constituency for these ideas in Russia at all.

Perhaps it is this latter fact that western commentators find so difficult to accept or understand.  Perhaps that is why whilst trumpeting the supposed electoral setback Putin has suffered these commentators ignore the most obvious point of this election, which is the advance of the left.  May be it is why these same commentators simply refuse to accept the validity of Russian election results and retreat instead into the bizarre phantasmagoria I have been reading in the newspapers today.

8 thoughts on “RUSSIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS

  1. The 15% liberal electorate in Russia can be valid (although I have no source for it) if you consider the idea that most of the liberals vote for UR, which is the most viable party to get some influence. After all, the flat tax was introduced by UR, and it is just a dream for all western liberals. Moreover, the Russian liberal parties have an insane tendency toward petty squabbles and divisions along personality lines, so most Russian liberals rightly see that voting for these parties is vote wasting.

  2. I would like to pick up on three points for expansion:

    ‘There undoubtedly are some dangerous and racist individuals in Russia as there are in every country but on the evidence of this election the spectre of a large and sinister nationalist ultra right movement is revealed as largely a figment of the imagination of the reporters who write about it. ‘
    – But by your own admission, a tenth of the electorate votes for a very nationalist party. That is higher than in some other European countries. Could you say a bit more about Zhirinovsky’s politics?

    ‘As a force of unideological conservatism the party that represents the first block, the governing party United Russia, will never arouse much in the way of enthusiasm. It will always be a but for criticism especially on the part of younger people. This should not however blind one to its underlying strengths, which explain its presently dominant position in Russian politics.’
    – What are those underlying strengths?

    ‘Since the conservative block that governs the country has no ideology of its own it is receptive to ideas coming from the left. The result is that all the major parties in Russia are now broadly committed to a similar range of policies that could be broadly defined certainly in western terms as left wing.’
    – What evidence is there that United Russia is receptive to leftist ideas? Is there any appetite in the party, for example, for progressive taxation?

    Thanks,

    Catherine

    • Dear Catherine,

      To answer your points:

      1. Zhirinovsky’s party is impossible to define ideologically. It seems to be very much based around Zhirinovsky’s personality. He has never followed a consistent line on anything except a very strident patriotism and (on occasion) anti Americanism. In this election he did try to pander to ethnicist sentiments on the assumption that there is currently a strong anti immigrant mood. For example one of his slogan was “Russia for Russians”. It did not work for him. His party’s support increased by just 3% as opposed to A Just Russia’s whose support increased by 5% and the Communists whose support increased by 8%. Put another way that is a 13% increase in the vote for the leftist parties as opposed to just a 3% for Zhirinovsky campaigning this time on a nationalist platform. I ought to say that Russian law forbids parties to campaign on openly racist platforms and Zhirinovsky once initiated proceedings against another party Rodina on precisely that ground. The case was successful and Rodina was closed down.

      2. United Russia’s constituency is the small towns and villages of Russia where a large proportion of the population live as well as a section of the population of the cities. These people are conservative with a small c. They will vote for United Russia precisely because it embodies the conservatism they feel. This is a very big constituency and not one to be underestimated/

      3. The short answer is yes. At the recent United Russia congress which nominated Putin for the Presidency he made it clear that reform of the tax system in a more progressive direction is fully on the agenda.

      @ Dear Giuseppe,

      1. Putin introduced the 13% flat tax shortly after he became President in order to deal with the problem of tax avoidance. Basically the idea was that by simplifying the tax system and bringing tax rates down it would be easier both to collect taxes and to persuade people to pay. The policy was successful. I would point out however that corporate taxes in Russia are I believe 38%, which is substantially higher than in Britain. Incidentally a 13% flat tax was the income tax rate in the Soviet period (except I believe that there was a higher tax for bachelors). By bringing it back Putin returned the tax to the rate that people were familiar with and understood. I think the situation now is different and where progressive taxes were once fiercely resisted they are now widely supported. I should also say that there is much a better tax collection system in existence today than there was before.

      2. There are many reasons why people vote for United Russia but I doubt that the flat tax is one of them to any very great degree. Surely someone who feels strongly about this issue would be voting for Right Cause, which won 0.6%? United Russia is a conservative not a liberal party. Given that there are liberal parties around why would liberals not vote for them?

      3. I agree with you about the fractious nature of the liberals. However even if they all disagree with each other they had in these elections two parties, Yabloko and Right Cause, which they could vote for. In the event the total vote achieved by these parties was just 3.7%.

      • Thanks for your answer Alexander, it is very informative. But I feel that I failed to explain my thoughts about the liberal electorate. You ask Given that there are liberal parties around why would liberals not vote for them? Because there are too many (3) liberal parties trying to capture the vote of a political area that is barely the size of the electoral threshold. And “barely the size” is an very generous estimate. My hypothesis is that many Russians with liberal leanings think something like: “I can vote Yabloko, or Right Cause, or Russian Patriots, but my political area is small, possibly below the electoral threshold and it disperses the votes among 3 parties. My vote will be wasted, so let’s vote the lesser evil (UR)”. This is what happened in the Italian 2008 election with the “extreme” left, i.e. the area to the left of the center-left Partito Democratico (PD). The polls gave to this area around 5-6%, the electoral threshold is 5% and 3 parties competed for this vote base. Hence many leftist potential voters decided to vote the PD.

  3. Dear Alexander,

    I’d like to caution you against direct comparison between the 2003 and 2011 elections. In 2003, half of the votes were distributed by party lists and half in single-mandate districts. In the vote by party lists, UR indeed took 37.6% of the vote, but it also took 103 of 225 single-mandate Duma seats, which is roughly 46%. Besides, the so-called unaffiliated deputies — about 70 of them — rapidly joined UR, giving the latter essentially the constitutional majority.

    One more point. In 2003, UR was two-year-old; in 2011, ten-year-old. What is good for a baby, isn’t necessarily so for a teenager:)

    Best,
    Eugene

  4. Dear Giuseppe,

    A very interesting point! I am sure you are right and I ought to add (something that I did not make clear in my earlier response) that there are some very right wing people in the leadership of United Russia as well. Having said this my essential point is that the the so called liberal parties receive a disproportionate amount of attention given the amount of support they receive. Your observation, which suggests that even if united behind a single party it would struggle to pass the 7% threshold to my mind rather bears this out.

    Dear Eugene,

    Thank you for some very useful corrective points.

    You may be interested to know that in my opinion United Russia’s natural level of support is around 40-45% and I expect it to gradually fall back to that level. I think the reason it polled as much as 49% in this election is not because of vote rigging (except in the Northern Caucasus) but because it is still benefiting from the after effects of the “Putin surge” of 2007. As for why I think United Russia’s natural support level is 40-45%, this is not I admit based on any particular knowledge of Russian affairs but because that is the natural level of support of conservatives parties in most countries.

    I hope I have made it clear in my post that I think that these have been a good election for Russia.

    • Dear Alexander,
      I couldn’t agree more on the point of disproportionate attention for the liberals by western and western-oriented media. It is as if the Chinese media made a campaign about the Italian extreme left suppressed by the evil regime. IMO, this pro-liberal media campaign does more harm than good to the liberals, first because they’re seen as an alien political force, second because they really see themselves as victims of the regime, rather than victims of their own foolishness.

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