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The Moscow Times, December 5, 2003

Why Duma Elections Do Matter


There is a widely held view that the State Duma is completely in the pocket of the presidential administration, that all it really does these days is perform the role of rubber stamp for Kremlin-backed legislation, and that Sunday's ballot will not change much. And therefore the whole exercise is largely meaningless.

While it is true that the Duma has increasingly come to resemble an adjunct of the Kremlin legal department rather than a separate branch of government, it is certainly not true that the outcome of the elections will not have an impact on the political system.

Apart from anything else, voting preferences provide a snapshot of the popular mood at a time when the Kremlin is highly sensitive to trends in public opinion -- i.e. three months before the presidential poll.

And although the Kremlin is most unlikely to invite the parliamentary majority that emerges to form a government (even if it is solidly pro-presidential), it is perfectly possible that there will be some kind of government reshuffle after the elections to align the executive more closely with "popular sentiment" prior to the presidential election -- particularly if the results were to register a high level of discontent with the adminstration's current course.

President Vladimir Putin is looking for a first-round victory in March, so it is clearly in his interests to do everything in his powers to facilitate that, including personnel changes and tailoring his election manifesto to reflect voters' preferences.

But there is an even more important reason why the Duma elections matter.

The composition of the new Duma will set the tone for the next four years, and here the balance of political forces is crucial.

An overwhelming victory for United Russia (with a roughly commensurate drop in the Communist vote) would be taken by the Kremlin as complete legitimization of its actions over the past four years. Opposition forces have provided one of the few checks (albeit a weak one) on the executive. Without even that in place, the potential for further authoritarian drift increases considerably.

Equally worrying, if Homeland (Rodina) makes an impressive debut, garnering 10 percent of the vote or so, combined with a poor performance by the Union of Right Forces or Yabloko (particularly if one of them does not make it over the 5 percent threshold), there is a danger that the political center will be pulled in an alarmingly populist-nationalist direction.

The full consequences of this worst-case scenario would only start to be felt in March, however. The real election season only gets going on Sunday.


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State Duma elections 2003

The Moscow Times, December 5, 2003

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