December’s elections to the Russian State Duma will be the first to be held under conditions of political stabilization, with ongoing federal reform, a considerably stronger center and a reinforced team supporting Vladimir Putin. They will seriously test the model of “managed democracy” that has come to be associated with President Putin, and will be a trial of strength for the “party of power” on the eve of Putin’s election for a second term.
It has become fashionable recently for experts to speak of the predictability and dullness of the forthcoming Duma elections. But politics are unpredictable, even in a “managed democracy.” Only two parties–the Communists (KPRF) and United Russia–are sure to clear the 5 percent threshold. All the others–Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and the Liberal Democrats (LDPR)–are hovering somewhere around that figure. So a vote swing of just a few percentage points could lead to disproportionate shifts in party representation in the Duma.
But the true source of unpredictability lies not in the opinions of voters, but in the “technical” aspect of the elections, which is not attracting much attention either from the public or from analysts. Russia is evolving from a democracy that has been managed haphazardly from various centers, into one that is managed in an organized way from a single source.
The various actors on the political stage are fighting for the best roles, or trying to think up ways of attracting more attention to themselves, while journalists track their fluctuating fortunes. Meanwhile, major “technical” work is going on behind the scenes. Its effect cannot yet be clearly seen, but the fragments visible during the recent regional elections allow us to make a provisional judgment.
The impending elections are affected by the Kremlin’s concerted effort to centralize control of the nation’s political system, combined with major changes in the rules of the game regarding the electoral process. These are: 1) the reformed electoral commissions; 2) the courts; 3) the law enforcement agencies; 4) the new system of presidential envoys; 5) the political offices open to the public that have been set up by the presidential envoys; and 6) the redistricting of electoral constituencies.