By Boris Kagarlitsky
MOSCOW — Less than six months before the date set for fresh elections to parliament, electoral blocs are being formed, and the press is forecasting the likely distribution of seats in the lower house, the State Duma. Meanwhile, it is still not clear whether the elections will be held on schedule, and under what rules.
Electoral legislation cleared the parliament some seven months before the polls were due. The basis for the new electoral law was the decree of President Boris Yeltsin under which the previous elections were conducted in December 1993.
The electoral system established then provides for half the places in the Duma to be filled from single-member electorates, while the other half are chosen from party lists on the basis of proportional representation.
Compared with the 1993 decree, the Duma's law contains only minor technical changes, but it has proven completely unacceptable to Yeltsin and his associates.
Before the law was passed, presidential representatives argued that the legislation gave too much influence to political parties. Administration spokespeople went so far as to maintain that the decree on which the parliament's law was modelled was undemocratic, since it was issued under a state of emergency (declared by Yeltsin himself!).
The 1993 decree is too democratic for the new situation, in which even official data show supporters of the president numbering no more than 6-9% of potential voters. Throughout 1994 opposition candidates heavily outpolled government supporters in virtually all local elections and by-elections.
Worst of all in the view of the authorities was the fact that the clear leader among the opposition forces was the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Support for the CPRF increased among the population as a whole, guaranteeing that the party would perform strongly in elections held under proportional representation. Even in Moscow and St Petersburg, where in the 1993 elections the left averaged 10-15% of the vote, by-elections and surveys have shown support for the Communists rising to 22-27%.
After more than two-thirds of the Duma deputies voted to retain the existing electoral system, Yeltsin issued a veto. Under the constitution elections can be held only on the basis of a law adopted by the parliament, so the veto could mean two things: either the elections will not happen at all, or they will once again be illegal, with emergency measures again declared.
Yeltsin's efforts to transform the electoral system are closely linked to the formation of the new governing party "Our Home — Russia", headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The authorities have finally grown disillusioned with the old "democratic" parties, and above all with "Russia's Choice", led by Yegor Gaidar. In 1993 "Russia's Choice" was assigned the role of the regime's parliamentary wing, but the "democrats" proved too ambitious and ultimately powerless.
A more reliable partner for the government in the State Duma has been the Liberal Democratic Party of ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The LDP has supported the budget, voted in favour of the war in Chechnya and approved the concentrating of power in the hands of the president. However, openly transforming Zhirinovsky's party into the government's parliamentary wing has been impossible, mainly because of problems with public opinion in the West.
Moreover, the bureaucratic hierarchs have grown tired of neo-liberal rhetoric. They never took this rhetoric very seriously, but put up with it so long as it worked for them. It is now clear that the ideology of neo-liberalism is not working, and the authorities have become convinced that neo-liberal demagogy is not even fit for duping voters.
The state bureaucracy has decided to act openly, organising a political party and seeking seats in the Duma. The 1993 decree allowed state ministers and governors of provinces to be elected to parliament. Yeltsin is now trying more and more to loosen this aspect of the legislation, in order to allow himself to create something akin to Stalin's Supreme Soviet, in which most of the members were functionaries from the state apparatus.
One of the first results of Chernomyrdin's call for the formation of "Our Home — Russia" has been the collapse of the "democratic" parties at the local level. All serious people with links to the regime have migrated in a body to the premier's bloc. Among the first to declare their support for the new coalition were the members of the "Stability" fraction in the present Duma. This group is regarded in official quarters as a prototype for the future "parliamentary majority".
Other adherents include a group of bankers close to the government; journalists have christened these people the "Gang of Eight". The only top-level administrator to shun the coalition has been Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who bears a grudge against Yeltsin.
Contrary to expectations, the "intellectuals" of Gaidar's party have stayed outside the game. This represents a major setback for Chernomyrdin, though there is no sign that the prime minister understands the blow which the "democrats" have dealt him.
An indispensable factor in the development of Democratic Russia and Russia's Choice was a mass of eager, selfless dupes. These people played the decisive role in all the victories for "democracy". There are still significant numbers of people who simply love Gaidar, irrespective of the consequences for them personally of his economic policies.
Chernomyrdin will not inherit the selfless love of Gaidar's fans. The government now thinks that an election campaign can be run entirely without activists. But even good administrators cannot replace activists and propagandists, and today's administrators are not coping even with their own direct responsibilities. It is not hard to foresee the exceptionally dull, lifeless campaign Chernomyrdin will conduct, and the indifference with which voters will greet his arguments.
Yeltsin and his associates have also set out to create a loyal opposition. This role has been assigned to a projected electoral bloc to be led by Ivan Rybkin, speaker of the State Duma and a loyal Yeltsin collaborator.
Rybkin was elected to the Duma in 1993 on the list of the Agrarian Party; now, suddenly remembering his past, he has unexpectedly proclaimed himself a "leftist". However, none of the left organisations, even the most opportunistic, are willing to have anything to do with him.
State officials can simply be appointed to posts in Chernomyrdin's bloc, but attempts to appoint them to the opposition have failed. According to press reports, functionaries urged by the Kremlin to join Rybkin's bloc have all but fallen on their knees and pleaded with their bosses "not to ruin them".
Under strong Kremlin pressure, Mikhail Shmakov, chairperson of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), has abandoned his original strategy of drawing closer to the Communists, and has announced the formation of his own bloc, "Trade Unions of Russia — To the Elections!"
This bloc has little in common with the plan for a left and labour electoral alliance put forward earlier by the Party of Labour, since it is completely devoid of any radical content. More than half of the regional union federations have refused to enter Shmakov's bloc, preferring to work together with the Communists. This is also the position of the Party of Labour.
Neither Chernomyrdin's bloc nor Rybkin's enjoys mass support. Public appearances and statements by these leaders are more likely to repel voters than to attract them. But it does not by any means follow that Chernomyrdin will lose the elections. The presidential administration is already asking loyal candidates openly whether they will "need help counting the votes".
The change in the election rules at a time when the campaign is already under way will create turmoil and confusion, which always provide an ideal setting for fraud. Under Yeltsin's proposal, the number of seats decided on the basis of party lists would be reduced by a third; a few months before the elections, the electoral map would have to be totally redrawn, and more than 100 new electoral districts created. The redrawing of the electoral boundaries would take place with the participation of the local administrations, representatives of which are running for the Duma as members of Chernomyrdin's bloc.
In discussions between representatives of the Union of Oil and Gas Construction Workers and the chiefs of the fuel and energy complex, someone from the government let slip that the regime already had a list of 169 deputies — not "candidates", but "deputies". These 169 people have already been appointed by the prime minister to the future Duma, although there is not yet even a law on elections.
For the government, failure in the elections does not necessarily mean a lack of parliamentary representation. With the help of well-engineered electoral fraud, the regime is capable of securing itself a powerful Duma fraction.