In any discussion of Russian politics the elephant in the room is always United Russia, the electoral juggernaut founded a decade ago to herd fractious elites into a single tent and give them a unified goal: Support Vladimir Putin.
Though Mr. Putin receives most of the attention, the party he founded, and until quite recently led, has moved from strength to strength. In two major election cycles since Putin first came to power in 2000, United Russia has swept most regional legislatures, squeezed the liberal opposition out of the Duma, and won a two-thirds majority that enabled it to amend the Constitution – to increase future terms of office for the president and Duma deputies.
Putin appears so confident of victory that he easily relinquished his leadership of United Russia at the party’s convention last month in return for its nomination for presidential elections slated for March. Incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev, who may be prime minister in the next Putin administration, was handed the task of leading the party into the December polls. He is the one who will likely get the blame if UR fails to hold on to its huge majority.
“Our campaign is going well, and we see support picking up around the country,” says Vladimir Medinsky, a member of the party’s central council and a Duma deputy. “Of course Putin is more popular, but we think having Medvedev at the top of our ticket this time will attract more liberal people, the youth, people interested in modernization.”
Mr. Medinsky says UR’s main causes can be summed up as “for Putin and development” of the country.
The party’s opponents characterize it as a “trade union for bureaucrats,” because of the preponderance of state officials – people who would be barred from political activity in many Western countries by conflict of interest laws – and Kremlin-crony businessmen in its ranks.
Denis Volkov, a researcher with the independent Levada Center in Moscow, says about one-third of respondents in recent polls identify their feelings about UR with the phrase “party of rogues and thieves,” while just 20 percent see it as a party that “represents the interests of Russian society.” Yet when asked which party they see as “a real political force” in the country, fully three-quarters cite United Russia, far more than the next-in-strength Communist Party or the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Recent opinion polls suggest UR’s popularity has eroded seriously in the run-up to fresh Duma elections, due in December. Yet it appears on track to win another immense majority, thanks to the Putin-era system of “managed democracy” that ensures independent challengers are kept off the ballot, awards the lion’s share of media coverage to UR, and – it has been frequently alleged – employs a full quiver of dirty tricks, including ballot stuffing, to achieve its desired outcome on election day.
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.
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.”