Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 12

The Media: Can it Sway the Elections?

by Gleb Cherkassov

It is hard to overestimate the role of the mass media in the electioncampaigns which are taking place in Russia. Inability to workwith the media leads to complete disaster in the elections, whileclever use of information resources could bring stunning success,as the success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party(LDPR) in the 1993 elections confirms. Moreover, the country’ssize makes it impossible for a candidate to travel through allthe regions in an election campaign, and the effectiveness ofsuch trips, as a rule, is not that great, and depends more onhow such trips are covered by television and the periodical press.

But the results of the elections to the Sixth Duma [in December1995] would lead one to suppose that the media’s effectivenessin political campaigns has dropped off significantly. It was theCommunists, who did not conduct a large-scale media campaign,who prevailed. Second place was taken by the LDPR, which was inan isolated position and did not have access to most media outlets."Russia is Our Home" occupied only third place, despitespending enormous amounts of money on political advertising andputting out more campaign literature than any of its rivals, andthe same thing happened, albeit to a lesser degree, with Yabloko.

At the same time, a number of blocs which were almost as prominentin the "information space," such as the Ivan Rybkinbloc, "Forward, Russia!," the Congress of Russian Communities[KRO], Women of Russia, or the Union of Labor, were soundly defeated,and got fewer votes than the Agrarian Party or the Workers’ Self-ManagementParty, which conducted far less active media campaigns. Indeed,it must be noted that the Ivan Rybkin bloc and "Forward,Russia!" did not even finish in the top ten, finishing behindmany parties which did not produce even a single television spot.

Despite this, the elections to the Sixth Duma confirm the importanceof the mass media. They also make it possible for us to examinenew ways that the media can be used.

The 1995 parliamentary elections show the development of importantpolitical tendencies. What was special about that campaign wasthat the public showed heightened interest, which, in part, wasreflected in the higher voter turnout. Perhaps, this was a consequenceof the fact that the Duma elections were something of a "dressrehearsal" for the presidential elections, and there waskeen public interest in the politicians who could one day determinethe country’s fate.

Accordingly, the competition between voting blocs was not so muchto persuade voters of the correctness of a given view but ratherto show that a given bloc faithfully represented one of thesetrends (Communist, patriotic, democratic, centrist). In connectionwith this, parties with persuasive or well-known programs hada great advantage over new parties, which could not catch up,even with the help of the mass media.

The voters rejected all the blocs which came out with vague ortoo-general slogans–virtually all the so-called "centrist"blocs, from KRO and the Union of Labor to the Ivan Rybkin blocand "Stable Russia."

Some political parties had more clearly-defined positions, butdid not have enough supporters. This is why nationalist partiessuch as Derzhava, the Russian National Movement, and theNational Republican Party of Russia, and radical democratic partiessuch as the Economic Freedom Party, the Federal Democracy Movementand "Forward, Russia!" did poorly.

Blocs formed along occupational lines or hobbies, such as theAssociation of Defense Attorneys, the Association of CommunalService Employees, and the Beer Lovers Party had no chance atall. Even the slickest ad campaign could not make up for theirlack of ideas.

Parties often try to compensate for their lack of a clear programand concrete slogans by having a charismatic leader. As it turnedout, only Vladimir Zhirinovsky and, to a lesser extent, GrigoryYavlinsky, were popular enough to carry their parties over thefive percent barrier. The presence of well-known actors, scholars,cosmonauts and generals on a party’s voting list made no difference.Voters saw them as representatives of their professions, perhapseven idolized them, but were not ready to be guided by them politically.

Ever since the 1952 US presidential elections, television hasbeen considered the most effective way of influencing public consciousness.In the last election, television was used in three ways: by thecandidates themselves (televised speeches, political advertisements,televised debates), political analysis programs, and news programs.

The last elections demonstrated that the role of central televisionin influencing the voters has dropped significantly. The vastnumber of participants has led to a situation in which both centraltelevision companies refused to give the leaders of election blocsmore air time for their speeches than they were guaranteed bythe election law. And the free air time they got was at extremelyinconvenient times of day, when the voters were either at work,or on their way home.

At the same time, campaign ads were lost among all the other commercials.Voters’ negative reaction to advertising in general played a significantrole. The point is that most ads are designed to appeal to peoplewith high incomes, while most voters live on the verge of poverty.Therefore, the fact that Ivan Rybkin’s ads were immediately followedor preceded by travel agency spots led to unpleasant consequencesfor him. Political ads which interrupted interesting programsor movies also annoyed the voters. (It must be noted that mostcommercial advertising in Russia is either made according to Westernmodels or consists of Western ads dubbed in Russian which do nottake Russia’s unique features into account.)

The people’s faith in television was also greatly undermined becauseads for financial pyramid schemes like "MMM" ran onnationwide television in 1994. Ever since that time, any timepeople hear someone making promises on television, they are remindedof this unprecedented fraud, and are furious. Broadcasting onlya small number of these ads, or better still, none at all, couldbenefit any electoral bloc.

As for news programs, being mentioned only rarely on the news,as a rule, was good for an electoral bloc. This can be explainedby the fact that most of the news elicits negative emotions, ata time when the average citizen wants to hear good news. A listof news stories such as the following –a record number of shootingsin Chechnya, a catastrophic storm hits the Novosibirsk oblast,a bomb explodes in Paris, "Russia is Our Home" leaderViktor Chernomyrdin makes a speech– will not benefit the highlightedpolitician.

It must be noted that at the beginning of the last campaign, manyelection blocs counted on the role of the traditional mass mediabeing much greater than it was in the 1990 and 1993 campaignsand the importance of signs, leaflets, etc. being secondary. Asit turned out, the role of door to door campaigning increasedcompared to the 1993 elections. Only the Communists placed theiremphasis on door-to-door campaigning.

Finally, the decline in the role of the Moscow and nationwidemass media, with a commensurate increase in the influence of localmedia, was an important factor in the campaign. This circumstancewas only exploited by the KPRF, and to a lesser extent, the LDPRand "Russia is Our Home."

Finally, the decline in the role of the Moscow and nationwidemass media, with a commensurate increase in the influence of localmedia, was an important factor in the campaign. This circumstancewas only exploited by the KPRF, and to a lesser extent, the LDPRand "Russia is Our Home."

One must not forget that nationwide television is made in Moscow,by Muscovites, and has more to do with the capital than with theother Russian regions. This is why regional studios are becomingmore and more influential, since they reflect the interests andthe opinions of people in the provinces. Moreover, the advertisingon local television is less obtrusive, and in principle, lessfrequent than on central television.

The same thing can be said of the periodical press. It is worthremembering that very few people subscribe to the Moscow papersin the provinces, and they are virtually unavailable at newsstands.Only the KPRF, and, to a lesser extent, the KRO, devoted any attentionto work with the provincial press.

But presidential elections differ significantly from parliamentaryelections, if only because people are voting, not for an ideaor a program, but a person. It cannot be ruled out that this time,everything will be different. We won’t have to wait long to findout…

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky and Mark Eckert