Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 12

Yeltsin defines the playing field for the upcoming parliamentary elections

by Victor Yasmann

From his hospital bed, Boris Yeltsin signed a decree on July14 which set December 17 as the date for elections to the Russianparliament. Although many politicians have been campaigning formonths, no one was completely certain until this decree that Yeltsinwould hold the elections at all. His decree, of course, doesnot completely disperse doubts about the Kremlin’s real intention,but it has done one thing: limit the number of players in theelections. That is because, according to the Russian constitution,only parties which have registered six months before the announceddate of an election can participate in it. And his decree alsoclearly reflects Yeltsin’s own judgment that he now has an electoralplaying field in which those he supports and who support him arelikely to do relatively well.

The Players

The two most obvious players in the upcoming elections are thecenter-right and center-left blocs organized at Yeltsin’s insistenceearlier this year. Neither of the coalitions has made any secretof Yeltsin’s support for them, and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdinhas even proudly adopted the title which the media sought to saddlehim with: "the party of power." Chernomyrdin’s center-rightbloc, "Russia is Our Home," was first out of the gate. Chernomyrdin began to set up his bloc in April, and since thenthe premier has far outdistanced his center-left rival. Firstof all, Chernomyrdin has united inside his party the powerfulbureaucrats and administrators of Moscow and other major Russiancities; second, he has attracted support from the same stratain most of the country’s far-flung regions; and third, he hasgenerated support from the oil and gas industry, out of whichhe himself came, and from several large banks. Moreover, thanksto his skillful handling of the Budennovsk crisis and his launchingof peace talks in Chechnya, and to Yeltsin’s heart attack, Chernomyrdinhas emerged as the most obvious candidate to succeed Yeltsin aspresident. Chernomyrdin demurs on this point: "I will takepart in the presidential election but only as a voter," hetold Komsomolskaya pravda on July 5.

In contrast, Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin’s center-left grouphas yet to take off. It is registered but so far does not evenhave a name. Now he and his colleagues are searching for alliesamong those groups not included within the Chernomyrdin bloc. He is having a hard time. Two main components of the democraticcamp, Yegor Gaidar’s "Russia’s Choice" and GrigoriyYavlinsky’s "YABLOKO" group will probably go into theelections not only separately from Rybkin, but also separatelyfrom each other because of their personal rivalries. Also, bothof them are in organizational disarray and have not yet formulatedtheir platforms.

Two recently organized electoral blocs are likely to play a significantrole in December. One is the "Union of Russian Communities,"which is led by the former chief of the Russian Security Council,Yuri Skokov, and which has a "national-patriotic" coloration. Skokov’s position improved recently when maverick retired Lt.Gen. Aleksandr Lebed joined his movement and brought with himhis enormous personal popularity. The other new group, "Powerto the People," is headed by former Soviet premier NikolaiRyzhkov and is clearly anti-reformist. But it will attract thedistressed as well as those who long for the past, and its blocincludes some popular figures like Olympic champion Yuri Vlasovwho made his name with outspoken criticism of the KGB in the earlydays of perestroika. If Ryzhkov does make gains, they will comeat the expense of Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky whosepopularity is fading fast. Zhirinovsky received a serious, ifnot fatal, blow when Russian television broadcast a film showinghim celebrating Chechnya’s declaration of independence with Chechenpresident Dzhokhar Dudayev. But Zhirinovsky has surprised peoplebefore and may do so again.

Finally, another serious electoral group is the Communist Partyof the Russian Federation led by Gennady Zyuganov. Zyuganov’sstrategy is to pursue an independent line and to rely on the 600,000plus members of his own party to put his people over the top. He clearly believes that he can do better by avoiding entanglingalliances than by joining them. But if the Communists win, itwill have more to do with organization, and with Zyuganov’s ownpopularity, than with the attractiveness to most Russians of communistideology.

These are the basic players in the new electoral game, but thereare important reasons to believe that Yeltsin may have the lastword and that is because of what he has done to structure theplaying field on which these participants will have to compete.

The Playing Field

Backed by the leaders of both houses of the Russian parliament,Yeltsin and his entourage did everything possible to write thecountry’s electoral laws in such a way that they would work forthe Russian president and the "party of power." Fourpieces of legislation were involved: the law on the election ofthe president, the law on Duma elections, the law on the selectionof the Federation Council, and the law on the holding of nationalreferenda. The presidential election law adopted in March 1995requires that candidates who occupy public office must cease doingpublic business during the campaign. Such a provision is clearlyaimed at both Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin and Moscow mayor YuriLuzhkov. Another section of the presidential election law saysthat the voting will be valid only if 50 percent of all eligiblevoters take part, an unlikely event under current conditions.

The Duma election law is basically intended to preserve the currentcomposition of the lower house. It was adopted in June only afterlong bargaining between the parliament and the president. Yeltsinwithdrew his objections to an even split between deputies electedby party list, and those elected from single-member districts,only after the Duma agreed to support his draft of the third law,the one of the formation of the Federation Council. Under theconstitution, and in the absence of a new law regulating the selectionof the Federation Council, Yeltsin has the right to appoint theupper house from his own regional and functional administratorsand thus to gain almost total control of half of the parliament.

Only after having won on these three points did Yeltsin proposea national referendum bill. It was adopted by the Duma this month. Superficially, the referendum bill looks both democratic andlike a useful balance to the pro-government election rules. Amongits stipulations are ones prohibiting the extension of the president’sterm by referendum, something many Russians had feared Yeltsinmight try to do in the manner of the presidents of Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. But such a stipulation is deceptivebecause the same bill includes provisions banning referenda onprocedural changes in existing election laws.

All of this means that Yeltsin’s own entourage is now soconvinced that the election legislation they have pushed throughwill guarantee them a pliant legislature that they do not needto worry about or cancel the elections.

Victor Yasmann is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation