Communist candidates suffered a shocking defeat on August 31 when voters in Saratov oblast on the Volga went to the polls to elect their regional Duma, or legislature. The elections to Saratov’s 35-member parliament were the first in what promises to be a crowded couple of months during which regional legislatures will be elected in 22 of Russia’s 89 regions. The results in Saratov were so shocking because the Communists, who previously dominated the oblast Duma, failed to win a single seat. (Itar-Tass, September 1) Credit for the unexpected results was claimed by the region’s forceful and ambitious governor, Dmitry Ayatskov, who was himself elected governor only one year ago. Until then, Saratov had always been considered part of Russia’s pro-Communist "Red Belt."
Voting was held in 33 of Saratov’s 35 constituencies. At 42 percent, turnout was relatively high for a regional election. What makes the complete defeat of the Communists all the more striking is the fact that, as is traditional, turnout in rural districts was significantly higher than in urban ones. In some country districts it was over 80 percent, contrasted with only 32 percent in the regional capital. The Communist candidates are blaming their defeat on what they say was a massive violation of electoral regulations by local government officials, including a blackout on Communist advertising in the media.
All but eight of the new deputies won election for the first time. All have higher education. Many are local government officials, while twelve are enterprise directors who will now be well placed to influence the regional budget. Ayatskov told a press conference on September 1 that he saw the election as a victory for his own team, known locally as "the party of power" though it calls itself "the Bloc of Popular Trust." Ayatskov himself has until now been a member of the pro-government "Russia is Our Home" (NDR), but he told journalists he is thinking of leaving the movement — a sentiment symptomatic of the general disarray that last week led to the resignation of NDR’s parliamentary leader, Sergei Belyaev. (See Monitor, September 2)
Ayatskov told journalists that, now that he no longer faces opposition from the regional legislature, Saratov will become "a model of how power should be organized in Russia." The Monitor’s correspondent in the region, who attended the press conference, reports that Ayatskov also took credit for the fact that Saratov has led the way in abolishing voting by party lists. Though they had party backing, all the candidates for the Duma ran as individuals. Ayatskov predicted that party lists will be abandoned when Russia elects the next State Duma. Given the Communist rout that has taken place in Saratov, the Kremlin may well give this recommendation serious thought.
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