Russian elections will offer few surprises

The Russian parliamentary elections ‘differ little from those in the Soviet times’, says the author.

Russian Parliamentary Elections Polling Station
Optimists predict that Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party will win 57 per cent of the vote [EPA]

Providence, Rhode Island – “All to the voting booth!” – this slogan has been around since Soviet times. In today’s Russia, it’s heard everywhere. On December 4, 2011, Russians will elect for the Parliament, the State Duma, and four months later, on March 4, 2012, they will hold presidential elections.

The current campaign in Russia, in essence, differs little from those in Soviet times: It’s already determined who will get a majority in the Duma and who will be the President of Russia, whose term has been extended from four to six years. And it’s not just a matter of voters’ preferences. Many years ago, the then-leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, declared: “It’s not so important how the people vote, it’s important how those votes are counted”. Today, they are counted by a computer, but are based on a programme installed by a person loyal to the future President Vladimir Putin.

 Putin’s party hits low ahead of Russian elections

But the current elections are also different from the Soviet ones. Back then, the ballot papers had just one pre-selected candidate who had been deemed most worthy. There was only one choice to make: Vote if you want, or do not vote if you don’t want to. But troubles always befell those who “did not want to vote”, particularly under Stalin, and continued to a lesser extent after him. And who needs troubles? That’s why everybody voted “Yes”, usually 99.8 per cent – any “Yes” vote under 99 per cent would cause troubles for the election commission itself.

Now, the Russian election campaign has played out according to all the characteristics of a democracy: Television shows edinorosy (members of the pro-president United Russia party) running around together with the Siamese twins Putin-Medvedev. According to the Russian constitution, neither Putin nor Medevedev can belong to a political party. Nevertheless, Putin has been the declared leader of United Russia since 2004, without any clarification of what that position actually means. And the current president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, is Number One on United Russia’s electoral list.

But this contradiction is illusory: In a democratic country, a party proposes a president and he is elected based on its political programme. In Russia, the party in power is formed from those who are close to the real source of power: the current president. President Boris Yeltsin’s party, Our Home is Russia, has been replaced by Putin-Medvedev’s party United Russia. But the make-up of the party remained virtually the same; all that changed was the name and the leader’s portrait.

At the top of the so-called opposition parties is an unusual Communist leader, Genned Zyuganov, and Russian political survivor Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, which was created by the KGB in the Gorbachev era. Sweet-talking members of the so-called social-democratic party, A Just Russia, brings up the rear. They are relative newcomers to the Russian political arena, and came into existence only due to the Kremlin’s desire to drain votes from the Communists, in order to prevent them from having too large a presence in the State Duma. Sergei Mironov, a previous speaker of the Upper House, was picked for the post of the leader of A Just Russia.

The parties mentioned above, according to the “estimates” of the Kremlin administration, will clear the 7 per cent threshold necessary to win seats in the State Duma.

In Russia, people do not vote for a specific candidate, but rather for the entire party. The names of those who will be lucky enough to sit in the next Duma do not depend on Russia voters; they depend on the leadership of that particular party (which is, of course, already approved by the Kremlin). And it does not matter that the famous personalities who head party lists will not actually sit in the next parliament. Usually, they are only chosen to top the electoral lists to attract votes, and after the elections they are replaced by other lesser-known names. In Moscow, for instance, Dmitry Medvedev is at the top of United Russia’s list. But it’s already been announced that he will not actually become a member of the Duma. Instead, he plans to head the Russian government under President Putin.

Neither Putin nor members of “his” party doubt their imminent victory. They have been giving confident speeches and lofty promises yet again: to eradicate poverty, to provide everyone with affordable housing (a promise that has been repeated since the 1960s!), to raise the standard of healthcare and education, and to revive industry and science. To be fair, they have achieved some of these things in the last 10 years.

Then they give unrealistic and opportunistic promises that they will ensure the independence of mass media. In a country where the only widely available medium is television and all television channels are controlled by the state, live broadcasts have long been forgotten in Russia, lest – God forbid – someone says something he is not supposed to say.

They are also promising to develop civil society, though the future president of Russia and party leader Putin declared independent NGOs to be agents of foreign states. He therefore “advised” leaders of those countries not to throw their money to the wind, but instead use it to pay their own debts.

But the most important promise from Putin-Medvedev campaign is to guarantee stability for the country – which ultimately means no change. Unfortunately, they do not understand how dangerous this lack of change is for the future of Russia. If society does not reform and adapt to changing external conditions, then its structure will soon cease to correspond to the demands of the times. After approximately 20-25 years of this kind of stability, there will inevitably be a revolution. Russia has already experienced this during the reigns of Emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II. Following the death of the reformist Emperor Alexander II in 1881, Russian leaders declared an era of “stability”. This state of affairs lasted for 24 years, but then, as it was to be expected, came the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

In the Soviet Union in the 1960s, Leonid Brezhnev also used this same motto of “stability” – and 26 years later came the upheaval of 1991, which resulted in the Soviet Union’s breakup. You do the math: Putin first became president in 2000, and may now be in power for another 12 years. In all, Russia will again have 24 years of “stability”. But what will come next?

In the pre-election hustle and bustle, the opposition has been criticising the current authorities to the extent that the Kremlin has allowed it. Communist Zyuganov, as always, has been talking about the destruction of the left by Yeltsin and his government of troubled reformers. Zhirinovsky is demanding a “Russia for Russians”, and the removal of immigrants. A Just Russia is protecting the interests of workers and their rights. And the neo-liberals want to do away with an eight-hour work day, make Saturday a working day, and allow children to work without age restrictions.

This presents a wide spectrum of contrasting opinions, but only within the limits determined by the Kremlin. For neither the party in power nor the opposition will dare to take a single step without its approval, open or covert, and without the approval of the main director of the Russian political orchestra, the deputy head of the Kremlin Administration Vladislav Surkov. And he does not like to joke around.

Russian elections, which take place according to a tried and tested scenario, remind me of an old joke about jokes. Workers in a company tell each other the same jokes every day. Finally, they get fed up and assign a number to each joke. Eventually, they just say a number, and everybody knows which joke you are about to tell, and start laughing.

The same applies to the Russian elections: Both the voters and the candidates have no doubts about who will win, but, as is supposed to happen, the intrigue remains until the very end. Now, Russians are discussing whether or not United Russia will get a constitutional, absolute or simple majority in the State Duma. But in practice, none of this even matters, because the party in power and the opposition will vote in accordance with the Kremlin’s orders.

But nevertheless, let’s take a look at what is “expected” to happen in the next Duma. Optimists predict that United Russia will get 57 per cent of the votes, while pessimists say closer to 53 per cent.

Zyuganov and the Communists will come in second with 15-20 per cent of the votes, followed by Zhirinovsky and his liberal-democrats with 10-12 per cent of the vote, and A Just Russia will garner 9-10 per cent of the vote. The others, from the liberals to the patriots, will not be forgotten either. They won’t make it to the Duma according to the law, but they will get a “sympathy” prize in the form of two seats and the right to address the Duma once every six months.

Sergei Khrushchev is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.