February 1, 2004｜Russia
Professor, Niigata University of International and Information Studies
The State Duma elections that took place in December last year provided an unparalleled opportunity to forecast the results of the Russian presidential election in March.
Russia’s federal parliament is based on a two-house system, consisting of the Council of Federation (upper house) and the State Duma (lower house), but at present only members of the lower house are elected directly by the people. Since late 2000, following two major reforms, the upper house has consisted of representatives of the administrative and legislative bodies of the 89 federal entities.
As President Putin has said himself, the State Duma elections were perceived as forming part of the presidential elections. The State Duma elections involved elections under the proportional representation system as well as for single-seat constituencies, with 23 political parties and elective bodies participating (as was the case with President Yeltsin, President Putin is not affiliated to any political party). The election was characterized by a victory for the governing party backed by the president that exceeded expectations, with the Communist Party – the largest opposition party – gaining less than half of all votes cast. Of the 450 seats, the pro-Kremlin parties won a total of 316 seats, with United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya) gaining 222 seats, the Liberal Democrats winning 38, Motherland (Rodina) winning 37 and the People’s Party winning 19 seats. The Communist Party won 53 seats, Yabloko – described as a pro-reform party – won 4, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) won 3, the left-wing Agrarian Party won 3 and other parties won a total of 71. Four parliamentary groupings were formed in the State Duma that was convened in late December. The pro-Kremlin parties occupied more than 80% of seats, obtaining a total of 372, with United Russia occupying 300, Motherland occupying 36 and the Liberal Democrats occupying a further 36; in addition, the Communist Party had 52 seats and unaffiliated members held 23 seats, with 3 seats being left vacant.
It would be fair to describe this result as synonymous with support for President Putin; while the Putin administration’s copious election funds cannot be ignored, not to mention its control over the mass media, having three television channels in its pocket, superficially one could say that the result demonstrates that the Russian economy is growing steadily. During the four years from 2000, when Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as president, until 2003, the real GDP growth rate was more than 6% on average, with growth being supported by oil exports.
The tendency towards support for Mr. Putin also emerged in various opinions polls. According to the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research (VCIOM), the proportion of those surveyed who answered “Putin” in response to the question “Who will you vote for in the next presidential election?” was 67% in November, immediately before the State Duma elections, 75% in December, following the elections, and had risen as high as 80% in January of this year.
Mikhail Khordorkovsky, the former chief executive of the oil giant Yukos, provided vast amounts of campaign finance to support the opposition parties and seemed to be eager to step onto the political stage himself in the future, but in October 2003 he was arrested on charges of tax evasion. In the same opinion poll, support for Mr. Putin in September, prior to the “incident”, was 75%, but as noted above, this had fallen to 67% in November, the month following Khordorkovsky’s arrest; however, looking at the results of the election alone, it is hard to believe that this “incident” had an adverse impact on either Mr. Putin or the pro-Kremlin parties. There were those – not only overseas, but also within Russia – who saw the arrest as being part of the President’s “political strategy”, but this result could well be viewed as a resounding “no” vote for the oligarchs, who dominate the country’s wealth, on the part of the Russian electorate. All Russians know that if one enquires into the affairs of any oligarch, one will uncover wrongdoing. This is because everyone knows that, in the Russia of today, a company cannot stay in business if it complies with the law and pays its taxes.
The deadline for the registration of presidential election candidates was 6th January. Although ten candidates have registered to stand, there are no really strong candidates other than Mr. Putin, the incumbent. The electoral system is such that, if none of the candidates gain at least 50% of all votes cast, it will become a runoff between the candidates in first and second place, but the possibility of this occurring is slight and we can say with a fair degree of certainty that Mr. Putin will be reelected in the first round of voting. Greater interest is coalescing around the questions of the scale of the vote that Mr. Putin will receive and whether, given the support of the pro-Kremlin State Duma and his overwhelming approval ratings from the Russian public, he will revise clause 81 of the constitution, which prohibits presidents from seeking a third term, and attempt to remain in office following another election.
[Translated by ERINA]