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Russia's `left' and `right' parties in decline

Peter Lavelle— RIA Novosti

The electorate seems to have taken a liking for the middle-of-the-road parties.

FOR SOME reason a subterranean belief persists among Russia-watchers and members of the media that the Russian electorate remains enamoured with the political extremes of the old Communist Left and the seemingly resurgent ultra-nationalist Right. A closer look proves the opposite. The majority of voters have supported the Kremlin's middle-of-the-road "party of power" and are set to do so for some time to come.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and the so-called ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky have declined relative to other parties elected to Parliament since 1993. The combined voting returns for both parties in the 2003 parliamentary elections show an astounding 70 per cent drop compared to 10 years ago. This should come as no surprise: both the KPRF and the LDRP strive to attract voters from essentially the same constituency.

The Communists have tried to adapt to the post-Soviet reality with little success. The party continues to hold in high regard what it considers to be the best elements of the failed Soviet Union (which is just about everything), with a grafted-on element of Russian nationalism. For the rank-and-file former members, this hybrid ideology is not compelling. Those who are attracted to the party's unconvincing embrace of Russian nationalism have other parties to choose from, and have voted with their feet.

Same ideology

Mr. Zhirinovsky's "cult of personality" party suffers from similar woes. The LDRP is often called an ultra-nationalist party, but its voting record in parliament demonstrates that it supports the Kremlin's party of power (whichever party happens to be in power at the time) more times than not and basically is a proponent of the prevailing status quo.

Mr. Zhirinovsky can be counted on for a star performance on television speaking to the "average Russian" and conjuring up amazing one-liners that entertain and are often even hard to disagree with. But in the end his party's platform is a near-reflection of the Communists with more stress on the nationalist issue. The LDRP's populism differs little from the KPRF's socialism and both parties leadership appear more than happy to play a role in a political game they know they can't really change or be bothered to understand.

The writing is on the wall for the Communists and Mr. Zhirinovsky's one-man show. During the last four parliamentary elections the "left-right" vote has travelled south from 35 per cent, to 33 per cent, to 30 per cent, finally to 24 per cent. Given this trend, the 2007 election result could expect a return of approximately not more than 20 per cent (and could be as low as 15 per cent).

Dmitry Rogozin's Rodina (Motherland), is of course, somewhat of an exception. Garnering an unexpected 9 per cent of the vote in the 2003 parliamentary election, it claims the mantle of a more strident Russian nationalism.

The fact is that Rodina is dealing with its own internal divisions — one faction appears to want to take on its former Kremlin sponsors in the Opposition and the other opting to adopt a more Kremlin-friendly position akin to the LDRP.

It should not be forgotten that Rodina came into being not to capture the ultra-national card, but to steal voters away from the Communists.

The fate of all three parties is probably irrelevant in the scheme of things. None can compete with the party that most of the electorate has supported since 1993 — the perceived "party of power."

Today the "party of power" is United Russia. Its previous incarnations include Russia's Choice in 1993, Our Home Russia on 1995, Unity/Medved (meaning "bear") and Fatherland/All Russia in 1999, and finally United Russia in 2003. Victory or defeat for the "party of power" actually had little to do with "administrative resources," "political spin," or invention of "artificial opposition parties." The final outcome was determined with whom the establishment politician supported as its representative: voters deemed Boris Yeltsin a loser and later Vladimir Putin as a winner. Importantly, this determination had little to do with a candidate's "populist" or "nationalist" credentials.

Russia's "left" and "right" parties are facing a slow, but steady decline. Since 1993, voters have supported parties to deal with the post-Soviet collapse — sometimes it has been to recapture a sense of a fondly remembered past normality, but most of time it has been to get on with the job of creating a modern Russia. Russia's "left" and "right" offer neither in any meaningful way.

The next step is to watch how United Russia — full of differences and contradictions — deals with the same issues.

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