The Kremlin is being forced to be creative to assure a landslide victory
An emergency congress of Russia’s Right Cause party, which until recently presented itself as an opposition force, elected Mikhail Prokhorov its leader. According to Forbes magazine, with USD 18 billion, Prokhorov is Russia’s third richest man. Not long ago he made a surprising statement, saying he was ready to join the opposition and take the Right Cause under his wing. The congress merely had to rubber-stamp his decision.
After the Kremlin meted out punishment to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it seemed unreal that a top businessman would head a political project that presented an alternative to the current government. This scenario appears even more outlandish in light of with a Russian Ministry of Justice decision to refuse registration to the PARNAS political force which united long-time opponents to the ruling regime Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Mikhail Kasianov and Vladimir Milov.
AGAINST ALL CANDIDATES
On December 4, the Russian Federation will hold its next Duma election. United Russia, steered by incumbent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is the clear favorite, but the party has reasons to worry.
In the last parliamentary election held in 12 federal regions, voters’ most popular choice was “against all candidates.” Ballot sheets in Russia do not have this option as such, so these citizens simply ignored the vote. The scale is astounding: voter turnout ranged from 33% (Tver region) to 47% (Orenburg region). Dagestan was a conspicuous exception with 65%, but this figure pales compared to the 80% it recorded in the previous election.
Out of the 12 regions where elections were held, the ruling party won 37% (Kirov region) to 45% (Kursk region). Considering the low turnout rate, its average support rate (50.4%) is critically low.
However, United Russia does not have serious rivals in the domestic political arena anyway. The only exception is the ominous “against all” option which is clearly gaining popularity in Russia. A public opinion poll carried out by the Levada Analytical Center showed that only 53% of those polled planned to show up at polling stations in December. United Russia is set to win 36%, the Communists 11% and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) 7.1% of the vote. No other party appears to have enough support to make it to the Duma.
The All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM) offered a less pessimistic forecast: a 52% turnout rate, 30.5% for United Russia, 7.1% for the communists, 5.1% for Fair Russia, and 4.7% for the LDPR.
However, according to both polls, most people (42-48%) would prefer to vote “against all”.
EVERYONE IS GONE TO THE FRONT
Faced with the challenging task of raising United Russia’s popularity rating, the Kremlin has resorted to good old, tried-and-true methods – assurances that “life will improve today,” increasing salaries for medical personnel and teachers by a third and promising to double wages for the military on January 1. Political analysts are scratching their heads: the government has never made promises as generous as these before. Meanwhile, economists are raising the alarm: with these additional expenses, Russia’s budget for 2012 can only be balanced if oil sells at USD 147 per barrel, but its price is plummeting now.
The Kremlin is aware of all these risks and consequently has tasked its creative minds to come up with new ways to disorient the electorate. Putin, who heads United Russia, spoke at its interregional conference and suggested setting up a new organization – the All-Russian People’s Front. Putin invited all parties, NGOs and youth associations to participate “for the purpose of strengthening our country and with an idea to seek optimum solutions to problems we are faced with”.
His call did not fall on deaf ears. The next day leaders of various associations – from the pro-Kremlin Young Guard to the Association of Russia’s Women – took part in a meeting of the Front’s coordination council. As many as 450 NGOs had joined the Front as of June 1, 2011, and 173 more are waiting in line. United Russia’s chief executive, Andrey Isayev, issued a statement saying that United Russia would replace one-third of its MPs by drawing new members from the Front.
However, Russian legislation allows only parties, not political blocs, to participate in elections. So the Front’s members will only be able to vote for United Russia, if at all. However, NGOs are happy to receive even this chance, because they are otherwise completely powerless in the Russian Federation. Thus, by rewarding the Front’s most active members with places on the ballot list and less active ones with a bit of cash, United Russia will try to attract the votes of people who are disenchanted with the current government but have membership in some NGO or other. Their votes will not be wasted.
OPPOSITION MERCIFULLY GRANTED BY PUTIN
The Kremlin is also faced with the task of weakening its opponents. Of course, these do not include the Communist Party and the LDPR, considering that they have their established electorate and have for many years played the role of the “constructive opposition.”
Russia’s leadership seems to be seriously concerned that non-voting “against all candidates” voter may over time turn into “against the government” voters. The imagination of people who flatly refuse to cast their votes for any of the top parties but care about the country’s future urgently needs to be captured with some other, alternative project.
It appears that the Right Cause party was formed in February 2009 for just this purpose. Rumours had it that the new political force would be the foundation for Dmitry Medvedev’s second run for presidency. “We need a commander in chief… Dmitry Medvedev will decide whom of his comrades-in-arms we should delegate,” said Boris Nadezhkin, a member of the party’s council. However, there was a problem with “comrades-in-arms.” First, Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin turned down the offer. Then First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov followed suit. These two potential candidates immediately buried speculation that Right Cause would be Medvedev’s party as both of them are long-time Putin lieutenants.
And then suddenly billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the ONEXIM Group and the RBK media group, volunteered to lead the party. He is remembered for having sold 25% of Nornikel’s shares at a peak price enabling him to weather the ensuing financial crisis. Another project of his is the hybrid Yo-mobil which was tagged ‘the people’s car’ by the Russian press. The red-ink line in the billionaire’s biography is a scandal in Courchevel where the police arrested him in the company of 15 women, prompting a suspicion of pimping. The new Russian politician sees his electorate as successful and ambitious people, i.e., the middle class. Prokhorov leveled scathing criticism against Russia’s current sociopolitical system at a party congress. His declared goals include allocating, again, part of the Duma’s seats to majority-district candidates, expanding the authority of governors, making the offices of chief of police and judge electable, reinstituting mayoral elections in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and so on. At the same time, Prokhorov called on his fellow party members to cross the word “opposition” out of their dictionaries. Furthermore, his political ascent has been boosted by powerful PR support from the pro-government mass media that have never been merciful toward the opposition. Now Prokhorov maintains an indecently pervasive presence on the Russian TV and in Russian periodicals. All of this suggests that he and the Right Cause are yet another project administered by the Kremlin.
Political schemes that the Russian leadership has recently come up with are aimed at exploiting people’s uncritical attitude that makes them follow the political forces the government conveniently puts before their eyes. How much these hopes are justified will become clear after the Duma election. However, the victory of the ruling party, although predictable, no longer holds out the guarantee of peace and loyalty in Russian society.