Where personality rules and political parties don't stick

Many of the dozen entities in the running for Dec. 19 elections to the Duma weren't around a year ago.

Russia's campaign season is in full swing ahead of Dec. 19 elections to the Duma, Russia's powerful lower house of parliament.

Russian elections tend to resemble a popularity contest among political gurus, many of whom consider themselves above the rough-and-tumble world of grass- roots political organizing and debate.

"Our political process remains very ad hoc and personality-centered," says Alexander Zyabrev, an analyst with the independent Institute of Contemporary Politics in Moscow. "The idea of a party, rooted in a lasting constituency and standing for definite principles, has not taken off."

Of the nearly dozen parties, movements, and coalitions in the running, most weren't around for the last elections four years ago. Three of the biggest groups didn't exist earlier this year.

Despite dumping communism and setting out to build democratic institutions nearly a decade ago, Russia still has only one Western-style political party that transcends individual leaders and short-term electoral goals. Ironically, it's the Communist Party, which enjoys a 100-year history, a nationwide structure of local cells, hundreds of thousands of loyal - mostly elderly - members, and identification with a set of enduring philosophical principles.

Opinion surveys currently put the Communists' support at just less than 20 percent, but in 1996 its lackluster leader, Gennady Zyuganov, won 41 percent of the vote in a hard-fought presidential contest against incumbent Boris Yeltsin.

"The Communist Party is the only one that would go on, and maybe even improve, if its leader disappeared," says Alexei Podberyozkin, onetime chief strategist for Mr. Zyuganov, who was expelled from the party after a political squabble earlier this year. "For its own stability, this country needs to develop a genuine multi-party system. That's happening, but far too slowly," he says.

Russia's 1993 Constitution aimed to stimulate the growth of responsible, nation- spanning political parties by making half of the Duma's 450 seats electable on the basis of party lists and requiring that an organization win at least 5 percent of the vote to gain entry to parliament.

The results varied wildly. In 1993 Duma elections, nearly a quarter of Russians voted for the most appealing character. That turned out to be flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party showed how to win elections in Russia.

"Most Russians tend to look at the individual politician and take his personality for a program," says Mr. Zyabrev. "Unfortunately, that's our level of political culture. Instead of a stable multiparty system, we have got fractious, unstable, and somewhat circuslike parliaments."

The front-runner in the current campaign is the Fatherland-All Russia coalition. Formed in August, it is a strange and some say unsustainable alliance between ambitious Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, several powerful regional leaders, and the country's most popular politician, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

An independent survey taken at the end of September gave the group 20.1 percent support, despite the fact that it has yet to say much about what it actually stands for.

"This is a very volatile alliance of incompatible forces who have come together only to achieve electoral advantage," says Valery Fyodorov, an expert with the Center for Political Trends, a private think tank in Moscow. "They are counting on Mr. Primakov's popularity to bring them into the Duma. Since they lack any common program, they are better off saying very little of political substance."

Yabloko, a liberal movement whose name means "apple," has a strong reputation for integrity. Its name is actually an acronym formed from the names of its three founders, Grigory Yavlinsky, Yuri Boldyrev, and Vladimir Lukin.

"We know how complicated it is to create a party, rather than just a group of people attached to a strong personality," says Sergei Metrokhin, a Yabloko deputy in the present Duma. He says the six-year-old group is deliberately trying to downplay its leader, Mr. Yavlinsky, in order to stress its pro- market, pro-democracy ideals.

"People will vote for personalities. That will produce shifts in power, but it is not democracy," he says. "For that you need stable, consistent parties, with full-time functionaries in every region, who answer to the constituents."

In the final analysis, Mr. Yeltsin himself bears much of the blame, says Boris Bilenkin, a longtime activist with Memorial, Russia's oldest pro-democracy lobbying group. Though twice elected in democratic contests, Yeltsin never used his prestige to father a political party that might carry on his legacy.

"Yeltsin freed himself from the communist system, but couldn't take the next step," says Mr. Bilenkin. "He chose to act like a czar, and put himself above the political fray. In this respect he hobbled the young reformers who went into his governments, because their authority was based on nothing but presidential favor."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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