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Moscow Times, December 10, 2003

Why Liberals Did Not Lose The Elections

By Yulia Latynina

On Monday, we woke up in a different country.

For starters, the outcome of Sunday's parliamentary elections means that President Vladimir Putin now has the two-thirds majority he needs to amend the Constitution. He can merge regions, replace gubernatorial elections with a system of presidential appointments, and most importantly he can extend his stay in office indefinitely if he likes.

Is this Putin's intention? He probably isn't thinking about becoming president for life just yet. But who knows what he will be thinking three years from now. Putin himself doesn't know. I would venture to say that the president has learned a lot about himself in the last three years.

The next important fact is that the Kremlin won the election without really resorting to vote rigging. It won with an extremely effective two-pronged campaign strategy. On the left, it created the Rodina bloc to divert votes away from the Communists. On the right, it played Yabloko off against SPS, draining the support of both parties.

Rodina was conceived as a handy tool for chipping away at the Communists' core support. It was almost certainly not intended to clear the 5 percent barrier for representation in the State Duma. A nationalist-socialist party in the Duma is a dangerous thing, after all. But Rodina's success makes sense. You can't start throwing oligarchs in jail and shouting "Down with the rich!" and expect a party of bureaucrats to reap the rewards. When the air is filled with extremist slogans, the Communists always win.

It's worth remembering that the Communists, not the democrats, were the primary guarantors of democracy in Russia during the Yeltsin years. Thanks to the Communists the Duma did not subordinate itself to the president. And for this reason they were enemy No. 1 in the 2003 campaign -- not as the left-wing opposition party, but as the party that would vote against constitutional amendments.

On the right, the slanging match between SPS and Yabloko was not supposed to result in the absence of democratic parties in the fourth Duma. Quite the contrary, the Kremlin would have been better served if one anemic democratic party had cleared the 5 percent hurdle -- preferably the one it had thrown a few votes to at the last minute. In fact, such a party would have been entirely in the Kremlin's pocket, yet it could still have been paraded in the West as evidence of a political opposition.

Word is that the debate on whether or not to pad Yabloko's vote total continued late into the night Sunday. In the end, the Kremlin hung Yabloko out to dry. Their mistake.

At the end of the day, the Kremlin prevailed not by vote rigging but by following the strategy drawn up by Vladislav Surkov, deputy chief of the presidential administration. This inspires a modicum of optimism. Perhaps the president will realize that if society can be run by clever campaigning, there is no need to crack the whip.

Finally, it has been said that Sunday's vote was a crushing defeat for the democrats. That's not true. The democrats didn't lose; they didn't even run.

There were parties that claimed to represent the political right. To the voters they portrayed themselves as the opposition; to the Kremlin they played the role of loyal insiders. The results of this two-faced strategy were predictable: The voters turned away and the Kremlin opted not to pad their votes.

For huge numbers of Russians, however, democracy remains a prized ideal. The "none of the above" party took 4.8 percent of the vote on Sunday, and it was supported by democrats. Voters in favor of a strong hand and Holy Rus had plenty of parties to choose from. The democrats had no choice whatsoever. Now add to that 4.8 percent those who would have voted for "none of the above" but simply stayed home and those who voted for Yabloko or SPS for lack of anything better. When you tot it all up you get an idea of just how many people would support an opposition party on the right.

On Sunday, the right opposition had no party of its own to vote for. But it will.

Yulia Latynina is a columnist for Novaya Gazeta.


See also:

the original at

State Duma elections 2003

Moscow Times, December 10, 2003

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