| 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
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
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
the original at
State Duma elections 2003