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Russian elections: it’s a long, long while from May to December

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The outcome of the 2012 Russian presidential race — i.e. which of the tandem will stand — may only be determined once the results of December's parliamentary elections are in. Putin has started his campaign early, and is showering largesse on potential voters, but for various reasons this could prove to be a serious mistake, explains Mikhail Loginov

Mikhail Loginov
15 June 2011

The Great May False Start

Although Russian presidential elections take place in March, the question of who will be next Head of State is decided three months earlier, in the December elections to the State Duma. Will Dmitry Medvedev retain his post, or will Vladimir Putin return to power? Everything depends on the success or failure of Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party. The stakes are so high that this year’s election campaign will not be beginning, as is usual, in the autumn, but has already begun in May. And the tactics being employed by Putin to hang on to power are already visible, as are the pros and cons of his strategy.

General mobilisation without a declaration of war

A curious political paradox has existed in Russia since 1999. Although, according to the constitution, the country is a presidential, rather than a parliamentary, republic, the deciding moment is the elections to the Duma. For Putin or his successor Medvedev to win in the first round, United Russia would need to floor its opponents, as happened in 2003 and 2007. Or take the political sensation of 1999 when the ‘Unity’ bloc (the future ‘United Russia’) made it clear to the communists that their time was up.

In other words, the question of who will be president in 2012 – Putin, Medvedev or some third party – will be answered in December. If ‘United Russia’ gains a clear majority in the Duma, Putin will decide who occupies the president’s seat. Either he will return to it himself, or he will find another reliable locum. In any case, Medvedev will be out of the game. If, on the other hand, United Russia formally wins the election but its share of the vote is down by more than 10% on that of 2007, Putin and his party will be seen as ‘lame ducks’ and Medvedev can hope to retain his job.

Medvedev_Putin_cycling

The presidential race has already begun. Who will arrive at the finishing line first?

So the Duma election campaign is not, at any rate for Putin, a rehearsal for the presidential fight, but its main offensive. The problem is that the Russian electorate is disillusioned with his crack troops, United Russia, as became clear during the regional elections in March 2011. And if most TV-watching voters have still not formulated their issues with the party, there is an active minority who get their news from the internet and who know about Aleksey Naval’ny’s definition of United Russia as ‘the party of swindlers and thieves’.

“Will Dmitry Medvedev retain his post, or will Vladimir Putin return to power? Everything depends on the success or failure of Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party ...  If United Russia formally wins the election but its share of the vote is down by more than 10% on that of 2007, Putin and his party will be seen as ‘lame ducks’ and Medvedev can hope to retain his job.” 

Before his party’s image could get any worse, Putin began his political campaign in May. His first step was to rebrand his party as the All-Russia People’s Front. The idea was that to support Putin you don’t need to be a member of United Russia – you can join the All-Russia People’s Front. Although even before the creation of the Front, there was already an ‘Association of Supporters of United Russia’, consisting of people who hadn’t actually joined the party. Some of these were even allowed to stand as candidates in regional elections, although most of the voters were unaware of these political niceties.

Before the All-Russia People’s Front had even written its manifesto, hundreds of community based organisations and individual citizens rushed to join its ranks. In May it already had 450 organisations on its books and another 150 had applied for membership. According to United Russia’s representatives in the Khabarovsk Region, the Front is supported there by nine major community organisations with a combined membership of half a million people – a third of the total population of the region.  

So Putin’s idea had no shortage of support. However another problem arose: some regional initiatives posed a threat to United Russia’s image.  

Brodsky, Tchaikovsky and the Marshalls are all behind United Russia

Russia’s most important spring national holiday is 9th May, when victory over Germany and her allies in the 2nd World War is commemorated. In recent years Russian cities have been adorned for the occasion with public service advertising of a patriotic nature. But in St Petersburg this year the hoardings with photographs of the war and the USSR’s military leaders of the time carried an extra decorative flourish. Under the portraits of Marshall Zhukov or soldiers gazing through binoculars could be seen the United Russia logo, distracting attention from the black and white images. 

Both the communists and Sergey Mironov, leader of the ‘Just Russia’ party, were indignant. They pointed out that the only party Marshall Zhukov and Marshall Yeremenko ever belonged to was the Communist Party, and that it was hardly proper to use them to publicise ‘Putin’s Party’. 

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Exiled poet Joseph Brodsky died in 1996, so even if he wanted to, he could never have been a "United Russia" supporter. Pre-election campaign posters in St Petersburg did not bother with such nuances.

And another surprise awaited the inhabitants of St Petersburg. Judging from billboards on the streets and posters in the metro, it would appear that the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the Nobel prize-winning poet Yosif Brodsky and even the Emperor Peter the Great, founder of the city that bears his name, all had connections with United Russia. The posters were in fact celebrating St Petersburg’s birthday, 27th May. This time it was not just United Russia’s political rivals, but the entire city, that was furious. The billboards were dismantled, although the metro posters stayed.

But if in St Petersburg people were force fed United Russia, in Saratov it was the All-Russia People’s Front that was rammed down their throats. Posters publicising it occupied more than a third of the city’s advertising space. In some streets there would be three billboards to remind passers-by of the existence of the ‘Front’.  

Such persistent promotion could well be counterproductive, both for the new ‘Front’ and the familiar ‘party of swindlers and thieves’. But this tactical error will be repeated again and again. The fact is that United Russia needs more than just a victory. Before every national and regional election local party branches receive unofficial orders to win more votes than the last time. Failure brings reprisals, perhaps even the dismissal of local officials. So regional party bosses attempt to gain votes through blanket promotion, with little thought for the possible consequences.

Open Season for Gifts

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Keeping petrol prices low is an obvious tactic for
Russian's election year

The creation of the All-Russia People’s Front more or less coincided with things that would normally have happened two or three months before the elections, but not six months. One of the problems faced by car owners in Russia is an annual technical inspection, which it is usual to bribe your way through. Putin cancelled the test for the whole of 2011, a valuable gift to car-owning voters. He also held a high-level discussion on water and heating provision. Practically all urban buildings in Russia are heated from central power stations. Putin admitted that an overhaul of pipelines was essential, but that energy prices would not be increased to cover the costs – a welcome announcement for lower income families.

Putin also created the Agency for Strategic Initiatives – ASI. Its function is to collect proposals for the modernisation of production, transport and social networks. Here he was to some extent stealing Medvedev’s thunder: the President talks constantly about the need for modernisation.

The Russian population can no doubt expect yet more presents from Putin in the run up to the elections. He will keep down petrol and food prices and announce the provision of housing for army officers and socially disadvantaged families. He will also put on a show of solving chronic regional problems, by reopening the odd small factory, for example. And we are guaranteed the sight of Putin in the cockpit of a plane, or the bridge of a warship, demonstrating that his hands are on the wheel.

So far there is only one risk in this tactic. If he showers the population with gifts now, in the summer, by autumn, the official start of the election campaign, there will be nothing more to give. All the big ideas will have run their course, and the voters won’t be interested in small change.

No way out

Dmitry Medvedev has been keeping his eye on the pre-election publicity campaign of his chief rival for the presidency in 2012. There is nothing more he can do. Medvedev has no party of his own, and no resources to create one. The modernisation proposed by the President can never become an ideology for mass consumption. As for taking measures to increase his popularity, in most cases, whatever the president does, the credit for it will go to the Prime Minister – Vladimir Putin.

"Dmitry Medvedev has been keeping his eye on the pre-election publicity campaign of his chief rival for the presidency in 2012. There is nothing more he can do. Medvedev has no party of his own, and no resources to create one."

Theoretically Medvedev could dismiss his head of government, take over his functions himself and try to convince his fellow countrymen that he is Russia’s sole leader. But given the President’s character this is highly unlikely.

However it still can’t be said that for Medvedev all is lost. The early campaign start, one could even say false start, has its downside. If United Russia continues its advertising campaign in the same vein, suggesting that Yury Gagarin and Tsar Ivan the Terrible were its members, and plastering the streets with the same tedious People’s Front posters, the electorate will become sick of it. If, at the same time, Putin’s generosity goes belly-up, and leads to an increase in prices and inflation, Medvedev can try to present himself as the defender of his country from an experiment unprecedented in her history: the start of an election campaign six months before the election. It’s his only chance.

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