On Sunday, Russians will go to the polls for Parliamentary elections. The result is not in doubt - one Russian not only told me today who would win the election, he also confidently foretold the result. United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev will win 54% of the vote. I replied “why not 70%?” With a look of pity at my naiveté, he told me “70% is not in fashion any more. 50 or 60% - this is democracy.”
Though he was being sarcastic, he captured what seems to be the essence of the upcoming elections - to give the Russian people and the world the impression that Russia is a proper democracy. And if you don’t keep your wits about you, the very clever manipulation of media coverage and, to an extent, opposition parties might just make you believe it.
First - opposition parties. According to an opinion poll I saw today, the Communists are likely to come in second place in the election, with up to 20% of the vote. This however doesn’t worry the government too much. Most Communist voters are pensioners nostalgic for the good old days of the Soviet Union (presumably they have a selective memory…). And though Russian grandmothers are certainly a force to be reckoned with, they aren’t going to March on Red Square to try and bring down the Government (though I’d love to see them try!). And the young are never going to vote for the Communists, so, understandably, the ruling party doesn’t worry too much about them.
In third place in the opinion poll is LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia). Incidentally, their leader, Zhirinovsky is as much a figure of fun as our own Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. And, also like Nick Clegg, he likes to make lots of noise against the government and then, when it really matters, vote with them. Zhirinovsky’s party is considered by some as a ‘clone’ party, controlled by United Russia but promoted as an opposition party in order to split the opposition vote. Whatever they are, they are no threat to Putin.
In fourth is “Fair Russia”. They seem to be genuinely opposed to the government, and they are at least making an effort. I’ve seen their people giving out newspapers in St Petersburg and Petrozavodsk, and some bus drivers have had their distinctive rising sun symbol blazoned across their bonnets. Despite this, or possibly because of it, they won’t get more than 10% when the official results are announced.
There seems to be a clear correlation between a party’s democratic credentials and its share of the vote, because in fifth, struggling to get the 5% of the vote required to enter the Parliament (Duma) is likely to be Yabloko (Apple in Russian, but Steve Jobs had nothing to do with it). This is my babushka’s favourite party, and from what I’ve managed to find out, they are mine too. Many Russians agree that they are “honest”, but they complain that they “don’t do anything”, which might be true, but when you aren’t in parliament (they didn’t get 5% last time) it is difficult.
Below them are the “Russian patriots”, whose party political broadcast looks like a 1970s Soviet propaganda movie (Rousing orchestral music, grainy images of the Russian countryside, slogans like “work in you country, take pride in your country, love your country), and who won’t be getting many votes on Sunday.
Such a fragmented opposition plays right into the hands of United Russia, who have also refrained from entering into the TV debates which representatives of other parties have been having every night on television. Maybe they think themselves above such things, or maybe they are afraid of being shown up. It’s a risk neither Putin or Medvedev, whose public appearances are all strictly stage managed, is willing to take. The debates themselves serve to highlight differences between opposition parties, which works for United Russia, which could only be seriously threatened by a united opposition movement.
Aside from debates, election coverage on mainstream channels is also strongly skewed in favour of the ruling party. Reports from small scale opposition gatherings are followed by clips of Putin addressing addressing a crowd of flag-waving thousands. Opposition adverts are outnumbered by those of United Russia’s, whose slogan “victory for Russia, victory for every one of us” is imprinted on my brain and probably the brains of millions of pensioners who never turn their radios off. And of course, wherever you go, Putin’s face is never far away, glaring down from a huge billboard and proclaiming that “Russia needs you”.
Having said all that, I’ve actually been surprised at how much coverage opposition parties have had, and at how freely they have been allowed to criticize the government, even on state television. It looks pretty democratic. And then I remember that I am yet to meet someone who says they will vote for United Russia. And I remember that despite this, according to official results, United Russia will win at least 50% of the vote on Sunday, because that how Russian Democracy works.