Russian voters swing left in local polls


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — The mood in the camp of the right-wing Russian "democrats" during the first days of December was savage. After an important round of provincial and local elections on November 29, the time had come to sum up the results of the autumn's campaigning. And for the democrats, the outcome was dismal.

"The results of the local government elections ... do not instil optimism", former government leader and architect of "reform" Yegor Gaidar admitted in an article. None of the democratic parties or groups, Republican Party of Russia leader Vladimir Lysenko wrote, "had any significant success in getting their candidates into the representative organs ... at the local level".

True, none of Russia's other organised political forces had cause for unmixed joy either. Voter turnout was low, and where electors felt moved to vote, they very often supported independents. But for a candidate to be identified with the government was generally a kiss of death. And to the dismay of the democrats, candidates from a series of communist groups were relatively strong performers. "Since December 1993 the pendulum has continued swinging persistently to the left", Lysenko lamented.

According to a report in the English-language Moscow Tribune, the deputies elected to the city council and provincial assembly in Voronezh, south of Moscow, were almost all from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Working Voronezh movement. The pro-government bloc "Peter I", named for the modernising 18th-century tsar, won no seats.

In Ivanovo province and the Chuvash Republic, victory reportedly went to blocs formed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and its rural allies, the Agrarian Party.

In the Kuban region of southern Russia, the democrats suffered a crushing defeat. Here, however, the political shift was less clear-cut, since the ground lost by the democrats was taken over not only by leftists, but also by populist and nationalist forces.

In St Petersburg, the process of choosing the city assembly was strung out over nine months and required three separate elections, as disenchanted voters refused persistently to turn out in the numbers required for valid results. Until recent times, St Petersburg was a democrat stronghold, and earlier polls assured pro-government candidates a majority in the 49-seat legislature.

But in the autumn elections the picture was different. government supporters were shocked after first-round voting on October 30 when the largest single bloc among the remaining candidates turned out to be the "Communists of Leningrad". The second round on November 20 trimmed the gains of the left, but right-wing Mayor Anatoly Sobchak will still confront a communist caucus of five in the assembly.

One of the better results for the democrats was in the Perm provincial duma, where they will make up about a quarter of the deputies in a "centrist" legislature. In a number of other regional assemblies, notably in Moscow, Leningrad and Arkhangelsk provinces, so-called "party of power" candidates will dominate; these people are members of the new regional elites, often with close ties to the administrations of centrally appointed governors.

While the vote for the left increased sharply in the autumn polls, the new relationship of political forces was obscured to a degree by the large number of independents elected. In Omsk, Smolensk and Nizhny Novgorod, independents will make up a majority.

Some of these people are democrats who did not fancy their chances if openly aligned with the Moscow authorities, while others are local entrepreneurs riding into politics on a wave of prime-time advertising. However, the independent deputies also include people who have won recognition as activists in popular causes. As the work of the new legislatures gets under way, the loyalties of the independents will begin to be sorted out.

A reassuring aspect of the autumn elections was the relatively weak vote for the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The LDP made little impact except in the Kuban, where it ran an elaborate and expensive campaign centred on Zhirinovsky himself.

The most favourable interpretation that the pro-government media have been able to place on the autumn election results is that they represent a vote not just against government policies, but against politics and politicians in general. The left-wing vote may have increased, the argument follows, but this means little when voter participation was often barely 25%; in practical terms, leftists along with democrats have been rejected by the mass of the population.

However, the alienation of the Russian masses from politics is neither absolute nor eternal. And if Russians have little confidence that answers to their country's problems will come via existing political channels, they generally have a clear sense of where the blame for these problems lies. Reporting the findings of a study by the Conflict Research Centre of the Academy of Sciences, the November 16 Moscow Tribune noted that more than 70% of Russians questioned in a recent survey blamed the current critical situation on the government. Only 41% thought that "communists" were responsible.

A recent survey by the Public Opinion Foundation asked Russians who they would vote for in a two-candidate election featuring President Boris Yeltsin and "a representative of the communist opposition". Fifty per cent, it emerged, would either stay away from the polls or would cross out both candidates; 20% would vote for Yeltsin. But a striking 18% would vote for the communist.

The Russian left therefore has promising opportunities; the critical question is whether it can take advantage of them. Unfortunately, the signs here are not good.

Tendencies of the "new left" type in Russia are minute and poorly organised. With few exceptions, the country's social democrats cannot be described as leftist, since their perspectives are limited to searching for a less brutal version of capitalist "shock therapy". The self-described communists are divided into at least five groupings, mostly small and unrepentantly Stalinist. The outstanding exception is the 500,000-member Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the country's largest political organisation.

It would be wrong, however, for leftists to hold out major hopes of the CPRF. Even in the English-language Moscow Times, which is strongly hostile to the left, the CPRF was described recently as "nearly social democratic". In an interview published early in November, CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov outlined plans for creating a bloc against IMF-style economic policies. These plans revolved around an attempt to "unite broad entrepreneurial circles". The idea that the entrepreneurial circles might have their own interests in mind, quite incompatible with those of workers, appeared lost on him.

The CPRF has also made grave concessions to Russian nationalism. One of its standard formulae is the call for a "union of state-patriotic forces". What this is likely to mean in practice was suggested late in October when Zyuganov put the name of Pyotr Romanov, an authoritarian nationalist and the director of one of Siberia's largest defence plants, at the head of a list of people he wanted to see in a "government of national salvation".

Nevertheless, significant numbers of workers are looking for a left alternative to politicians such as Gaidar and Zhirinovsky. The challenge is to build a left movement worthy of this popular trust.

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