Election season here in Moscow has been marked predominantly by Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he will run for president in March. Many critics saw this as confirmation of fears that the country’s politics were calcifying around a personality cult, while supporters welcomed the move as much needed stability in uncertain economic times.
No doubt the party that he has led for the last four years felt his candidacy could propel them to new heights of popularity. So far, however, this hope has proven unfounded. Support for United Russia, as well as support for Putin himself, is actually in steady decline. In their most recent pre-election poll, the independent Levada Center put support for the party at 53 per cent, a significantly lower figure than the 64.3 per cent of the vote the party won in 2007.
But while the public’s enthusiasm for the incumbents may be on the wane, the lack of any real alternatives could strengthen rather than weaken the ruling party’s grip on power.
Under a Russian law passed during Putin’s previous term as president, parties must secure 7 per cent of the vote in order to qualify for representation in the Duma. In 2007 only three parties other than United Russia qualified: the Communists (11.57 per cent), firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (8.14 per cent) and A Just Russia (7.74 per cent).
Polls suggest that the Communists have been the main beneficiaries of recent swings, but there are warning signs. Gennedy Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party from 1993, has seen their share of the vote fall in every election since 1999. And their reputation as a spent force in politics will not help them in the next election.
Nevertheless the choice is fairly stark. Of the parties with a reasonable chance of crossing the 7 per cent threshold, few have a track record that would suggest they represent anything close to a meaningful challenge to United Russia. Yet if, as is theoretically possible, only one opposition party scrapes enough votes for Duma representation, then Russia will be pushed perilously close to a one-party state. Not only would this be a PR disaster for Putin’s Russia but, once established, it would become even harder to hold the governing classes to…