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United Russia Grabs a Gigantic Lead

President Vladimir Putin looked close to gaining outright control of the State Duma as early results from Sunday's election showed United Russia on track to win a sweeping one-third of the vote.

The pro-Kremlin party's victory came at the expense of the Communists, whose share of the party-list vote appeared to have fallen sharply since 1999, when they received almost a full quarter of the vote.

United Russia's showing was the strongest for any political party since the Soviet Union's collapse. In the last three elections, in 1993, 1995 and 1999, no party won more than one-quarter of the party-list vote.

If United Russia's striking margin of victory was the top story of the day, the strength of two nationalist parties, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Homeland, was the second. The weakness of the liberals, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, was the third.

As of 1:30 a.m., with 17 percent of the vote tallied, United Russia had 36.3 percent, the Central Elections Commission reported. LDPR was second with 14.4 percent, followed by the Communists with 12.9. Homeland was fourth with 7.6 percent.

At press time, it was still uncertain whether the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, and Yabloko would clear the all-important 5 percent hurdle required to win a block of seats. Early returns from the Far East had them falling short, with 3.5 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively. Both parties, however, have tended to gain strength as votes from Moscow and St. Petersburg are tallied.

United Russia also was way ahead in a nationwide exit poll commissioned by The Moscow Times together with the Soros Foundation and Renaissance Capital. The poll, conducted by ROMIR Monitoring, showed United Russia with 34.1 percent and the Communist Party second with 13.2 percent. LDPR was third with 10.9 percent, followed by Homeland with 9.5 percent. The exit poll showed both SPS and Yabloko just past the post, with about 6 percent each.

That Homeland was able to break away from the pack was the "expected unexpected" news of the day, political analyst Sergei Markov said.

Casting his own ballot Sunday morning, SPS co-leader Anatoly Chubais warned that complacent voters had not fully realized the seriousness of the possibility that SPS could be shut out of the Duma. "We could go to sleep tonight and wake up in a different country," he said.

By the time the results started coming in, Chubais had become even more alarmist. He warned that the emergence of the "leftist and brown forces" amounted to "the most dangerous redistribution of the political field of influence" and "would completely change the political picture in the country."

In 1999, 63 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Central Elections Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov said he expected a similar share of the country's 109 million registered voters to turn out this time around.

Millions of voters who took the trouble of going to a polling station, however, voted "against all": 5 percent according to the early returns; 6 percent according to the exit poll.

Michael McFaul, a Stanford University expert on Russian elections, said the combined strong showing for United Russia, LDPR and Homeland meant that nationalists were in ascendance, and would set the tone for political debate for at least the next four years.

"Virulent" nationalists that characterize Homeland and LDPR "are the people who are supposed to be disappearing from the scene, not getting stronger, if Russia is consolidating democracy and integrating with the West," he said. For liberals, "it is a giant setback."

Back in 1999, when Yabloko won 6 percent and SPS won 8 percent, liberal forces appeared to be on the rise. The political chattering classes started to predict that they could double their share of the vote in 2003, which would put them in position to play a major role in politics come 2008, McFaul said. "That scenario is no longer playing itself out."

Now, "they're just barely surviving," he said, and their ideas have lost momentum.

Valery Bogomolov, chairman of United Russia's general council, arrived at the Central Elections Commission late Sunday night looking triumphant. He said the party expects to have won 40 percent once all votes are counted and to get a total of 190 seats in the 450-seat Duma.

Bogomolov said the party would propose Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, the party leader, as the next speaker of the Duma, because "he's the most suitable and consolidating figure."

United Russia, a party that ran on a platform of unswerving support for President Vladimir Putin, hovered around 25 percent support in pre-election polls. Roland Nash, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital, said winning over 30 percent is "a surprisingly large victory."

"It will allow the Kremlin to run parliament even more tightly than it has in the past four years," Nash said.

Putin is looking ahead to March 14, the date set for presidential elections when he is all but certain to win a second term, and to 2008, when that term ends. The Constitution bars him from running a third time, though with a two-thirds majority in the Duma and the approval of two-thirds of regional legislatures, the Constitution could be amended.

"The party of power, including LDPR and Homeland, is going to have a constitutional majority of two-thirds," said Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent analyst who is often critical of the Kremlin. He added that this majority would build its policies on nationalism and on populism. "This shift is all the more worrying because it is accompanied by an exact same move within the Kremlin administration."

United Russia benefited from hefty backing from Putin, who called it "a party I can work with." Campaign material called on citizens to vote for the party "together with the president."

United Russia refused to participate in televised debates against the other 22 parties on the ballot, but fawning coverage blanketed the airwaves, ostensibly in the form of news items featuring party leaders Gryzlov and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. An OSCE report said 56 percent of all news coverage on Channel One in November involved either Putin or United Russia.

Piontkovsky said United Russia would never have been able to come in so far ahead of the pack without "strong television anesthesia." Just four months ago, the tables were turned and the Communist Party looked set to win by a wide margin. Networks gave preferential access, too, to LDPR and Homeland. The little coverage given to the Communists was overwhelmingly negative.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov accused Putin of running a "war of extermination" against his party by starving it of access to the media. One Kremlin-funded party, the Pensioners' and Social Justice bloc, ran TV ads accusing the Communists of filling party ranks with oligarchs. Homeland placed ads in the metro calling on people to vote for "the real Communists," not for Zyuganov. McFaul said the Communists made mistakes of their own, though, in accepting the financial support of millionaires. "They really exposed themselves," he said.

Also, with the arrest of former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the government was perceived as having launched a long-overdue reckoning with post-Soviet robber barons. In this way, it stole the part of the Communist Party's agenda that called for righting the economic wrongs of the past decade.

Dmitry Orlov, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, said Sunday's vote will encourage Putin to strengthen his line against the oligarchs, having gotten confirmation that the issue deeply resonates with voters. The Duma, he said, will be "openly anti-oligarchic."

Speaking at Central Elections Commission headquarters Sunday night, Lyubov Sliska, a deputy speaker from United Russia's faction in the last Duma, had sharp words for her counterparts in Homeland. She said their anti-oligarch positions are not as strongly held as they would have voters believe. "What they said in debates and what they're going to do [in the Duma] are different things."

Pro-Kremlin parties have been gradually gathering steam. In 1993, Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's party, Russia's Choice, won 5 percent of the vote. In 1995, the party that backed President Boris Yeltsin, Our Home Is Russia, fared better, pulling in 15 percent. In 1999, the Kremlin's hastily assembled Unity party clinched 23 percent, putting it shoulder-to-shoulder with the Communist Party. In early 2002, the balance of power shifted strongly in favor of Putin's Kremlin when Unity merged with a former rival, Fatherland-All Russia. Rechristened United Russia, the new centrist party controlled over 140 of the Duma seats, more than any other faction.

The parties that do not get the 5 percent needed to win a share of the 225 seats allocated by party list still have a chance to get representatives into the Duma by winning seats in the individual races that fill the other 225 seats. Many individuals running in these single-mandate districts run without party affiliations, only to later align themselves with Duma factions.

The new Duma by law must convene within 30 days of the vote.

(The Moscow Times 08.xii.03)

 
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