Elections, Putin Style

Russia now has a pseudodemocracy to go along with its pseudocapitalism.

That's the message of Sunday's elections for the Duma, or lower house of parliament. Preliminary results gave the United Russia party an estimated 222 of 450 seats, while allied nationalist parties captured only 67. The opposition was decimated - most gains came at the expense of the Communist Party, which fell from 110 seats to 53, while two pro-Western democratic parties fell below the 5 percent of the vote needed to win a bloc of seats. (Some pro-Western liberals may still win individual seats.)

Although President Vladimir Putin is not officially a party member, United Russia is organized around him personally. With little ideology and a fuzzy program, its candidates refused to debate other parties in the campaign.

United Russia has no grass-roots organization - it's strictly a top-down creature of the Kremlin and subservient local and regional officials. It thus reflects the former KGB officers and Soviet-era bureaucrats that Putin has placed in key posts.

The elections were hardly fair: Mr. Putin pulled out all the stops to ensure United Russia's win. Opposition parties faced legal and administrative harassment. Observers estimate United Russia spent as much as $400 million hawking its candidates - a bit more than the $8.3 million per party legal spending limit. State-controlled television broadcast news that was blatantly biased in favor of the party.

In his most popular move, Putin played the Yukos card, arresting the oil company's billionaire president, Mikhail Khordokovsky, and breaking up a merger deal with rival Sibneft.

The unfairness of the campaign drew a rebuke from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which said the ballot failed to meet international standards.

Optimists say the wildly popular Putin could use his increased political strength to push through the free-market economic reforms Russia so desperately needs. But given Russia's history, pessimists - including Russia's real democrats - worry that the country is drifting back toward czarist-style authoritarian rule.

Many observers believe Putin's "managed democracy" has two goals: (1) to gain the two-thirds working majority in the lower house he needs to amend the constitutional provision limiting him to two four-year terms in office; and (2) to build a party that can hold onto power for decades to come, not unlike Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed for seven decades.

Unfortunately, parties such as the PRI, or Japan's Liberal Democratic Party - even if not totalitarian - over time become corrupt defenders of the status quo and entrenched interests, unable to innovate or reform. That's the last thing Russia's people need.

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