Putin's United Russia: Communist Party clone or modern democratic force?
Gorbachev calls it a 'bad copy' of the Communist Party. But the United Russia party has relentlessly trounced any serious opposition to Putin, who is now running for president again.
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A snap poll conducted this week by the state-owned First Channel TV network found that United Russia would win 41 percent of the votes if the election were held last weekend. The Communists would get 13 percent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party 9 percent. None of the other parties on the ballot would hurdle the 7 percent barrier for winning seats in the Duma. Among those are Fair Russia, a leftish party created by the Kremlin for the last election cycle in hopes of displacing the Communists, and which now appears to be in ruins. Another is Right Cause, a state-backed liberal party which dramatically imploded last month after its leader, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, quarreled publicly with his Kremlin handlers.Skip to next paragraph
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Under a complicated formula, the votes cast for losing parties, and spoiled ballots, are divided up among the winning parties. That suggests that UR is on track for another commanding Duma majority, though it will have to pick up a bit more to regain its two-thirds margin, which enables it to change the Constitution.
Last Spring Putin created a controversial “popular front” organization , which aimed to draw in outside forces, in what many saw as a bid to revive UR’s sagging popularity and spruce up its widespread public image as a party of venal bureaucrats.
Medinsky says about one-third of the party’s 600 candidates for the coming Duma election are non-party members put forward by the popular front.
“The popular front brings in new people, real people from the street, and gives them a chance to get into the Duma,” he says.
Since most power in Russia resides in the Kremlin, which exercises it through a vast and far-flung bureaucracy, some experts say the carefully stage-managed electoral system has no purpose other than to camouflage the true nature of authority.
“Our Duma is a rubber stamp, an expensive bit of window-dressing,” says Andrei Piontkovsky, a long-time critic of Putin and expert with the official Institute of Systems Analysis in Moscow. “Hence, United Russia is an electoral machine that bears no relation to real life.... Its key aim is to block any outsiders from ever getting into power.”
Other experts suggest the picture is more nuanced. They argue that attempts such as the popular front are aimed at encompassing the growing sophistication of Russian society within the party’s ranks, and that UR will eventually break up into more than one separate -- but mainstream -- political parties.
“The problem is that in Russia it’s very hard for our bureaucracy to accept the idea of more than one party of power,” says Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, an independent Moscow think tank.
“But United Russia contains a wide spectrum of people, such as liberals, conservatives, nationalists, and populists. It would probably be better for democracy in Russia if they separated into distinct political parties. I think this will happen eventually, but not this time.”