Post its defeat, the Communist Party in Russia is under threat from a multitude of rivals.
In Russia's presidential elections last month, the Communists missed a unique chance to mount a credible challenge for the Kremlin throne. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won the election, polling 63 per cent of the votes, nearly four times more than Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who came second, but the figures do not tell the whole story.
The elections were held in the backdrop of unprecedented public outrage over evidence of massive falsification in favour of Mr. Putin's party, United Russia, during a parliamentary poll in December 2011. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in what became the biggest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russians also felt insulted that Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev had struck a backdoor deal to switch jobs, with Mr. Putin returning as President and appointing Mr. Medvedev Prime Minister. Mr. Putin served eight years as President and continued to dominate Russian politics after shifting into the Prime Minister's job four years ago. People blamed Mr. Putin for endemic corruption, degradation of health services and education, and collapse of manufacturing industries. Many felt he should not run the country for another six or even 12 years, as the presidential term was extended by two years and the Constitution allows Mr. Putin to seek another term in 2018.
The December legislative election showed a distinct shift to the left in public mood. United Russia, the ruling right-of-the-centre party, lost almost a quarter of seats, even as it retained a majority in the State Duma lower house. The Communists won nearly 20 per cent of the votes, 60 per cent more than they received four years earlier. Just Russia, which campaigned on a social-democratic platform, nearly doubled its result, winning almost 13 per cent of the votes. Taking into account claims by independent monitors that Opposition parties were cheated of at least 15 per cent of the votes, it can be reasonably argued that a majority of Russian voters supported left-leaning parties.
“At a time when the government speaks of steady economic improvements, the country is clearly tilting to the left,” Dr. Elena Shestopal of Moscow State University (MSU) said in the run-up to the March 4 presidential elections.
A survey carried out by the independent Levada Centre showed that 58 per cent of Russians shared either explicitly Communist or social-democratic ideology and only 12 per cent embraced western-type liberalism. And while it may be true that the anti-Putin protests were led by the urban middle classes, sociologists found that the share of protesters who embraced left-wing views rose from 38 per cent at the first mass rally on December 24 to 54 per cent at the second, and so far the biggest, rally on February 4.
The combination of new civic protests, strong left-wing leanings in society and growing disenchantment with Mr. Putin created exceptionally favourable opportunities for the Opposition in the March 4 presidential elections. The Russian Communists, as the only truly nationwide opposition party with a ramified network of grass-root organisations, were best placed to capitalise on the demand for change in Russian society.
The strong performance of the Communist Party in the December parliamentary poll led some experts to suggest that the presidential election of March 4 could become a replay of the 1996 poll, when President Boris Yeltsin was forced into a runoff against Mr. Zyuganov. In fact, several independent election watchdogs claimed that Mr. Putin's victory was not as overwhelming as official results suggested and his tally tottered on the brink of 50 per cent, but the voting returns were doctored to avoid a runoff.
In the event, the March 4 poll was a disaster for the 67-year-old Communist leader. Not only was it Mr. Zyuganov's worst result in the four campaigns he had taken part but for the first time, he received fewer votes than his party in the parliamentary elections.
The Communists have themselves to blame for Mr. Zyuganov's debacle. Their leader stopped being seen as a fighter after he failed to challenge Yeltsin's controversial runoff victory in the 1996 election. Ahead of the March 4 presidential election, Mr. Medvedev sensationally revealed that Yeltsin had stolen the 1996 poll. Meeting non-parliamentary opposition leaders behind closed doors, Mr. Medvedev expressed surprise that they were making a fuss of violations at the December parliamentary poll. “Were earlier elections ideal?” he was quoted as asking. He then said: “There is hardly any doubt who won the presidential election in 1996. It was not Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin.”
This disclosure confirmed the widespread view that Mr. Zyuganov was plainly afraid of assuming power and had long been co-opted in the Kremlin establishment along with other “constructive opposition” leaders in Parliament — shriek nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and former Speaker of the Federation Council upper house Sergei Mironov, who acted as convenient sparring partners for Mr. Putin in his presidential campaigns. As one commentator put it, “Putin's strongest point in the March 4 race was his opponents' weakness.”
The surprise success of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov in the past election underscored the public demand for new leaders. Running as a self-nominated candidate, Mr. Prokhorov, 46, was placed third with over 7 per cent vote, despite Russians' distaste of oligarchs. Analysts believe that the oligarch, however paradoxical it may seem, took away votes from the Communist candidate because Mr. Prokhorov was a new face with new ideas.
Mr. Zyuganov's refusal to step aside and let a younger and more charismatic leader take over has put off many voters. The party caucus, happily settled in their warm parliamentary seats that come with hefty salaries, free apartments and chauffeur-driven cars, do not want any changes in the party and have crushed recurrent rebellions in regional branches. Under Mr. Zyuganov's leadership, the Communist Party has lost three-fourths of its membership, which stands today at 150,000 and is likely to decline further in coming years. The continuing glorification of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin has narrowed the Communists' support base. The party has failed to shake off the label of a “party of pensioners”: the average age of its members is 57 years, according to the Communists' own statistics.
“Russia's Communists, having missed their chance in the 1990s, and having refused to change in the first decade of this century, remain in a cul-de-sac of political development, exploiting yesterday's myths and failing to offer the country an agenda fit for tomorrow's needs,” wrote Professor Vladimir Gelman of the European University in St. Petersburg.
The new political situation shaping up in Russia may never give the Communists another chance. Political reforms the Kremlin has proposed in response to civic protests include a radical easing of registration rules for new parties. On April 2, outgoing President Medvedev signed a law that slashes the minimum membership a party needs to register from 40,000 to 500, and relaxes some other restrictions. Experts predict the emergence of a hundred new parties across the political spectrum, including many left-wing parties that would take away members and voters from Mr. Zyuganov's party.
The new law has already spurred party-building activity on the left front. A group of left-wing politicians from the Communist Party, the left-leaning Just Russia and some other groups have announced plans to set up a broad coalition to coordinate election strategies and avoid competition. This is an attempt to overcome a ban on forming election blocs that the Kremlin included in the new law on parties in order to fragment Russia's political scene.
The former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, has proposed recreating a social-democratic party which was set up in 2000 but later dissolved by a court order for failing to meet minimum membership requirement.
The fiasco in the presidential election has rekindled the revolt against the old guard in the Communist Party, pushing it to the brink of a split. Hundreds of “dissident” activists who were purged by Mr. Zyuganov's allies during a shake-up of rebellious party organisations in regions over the past three years are planning to set up a new party. Two months ago, the rebels held a so-called “Inter-regional Communist Conference” in Moscow, which accused the party caucus of turning the party “into a cynical mechanism for obtaining parliamentary seats and personal boons.” The conference decided to launch preparations for the inaugural congress of an alternative Communist Party. For their part, Mr. Zyuganov's allies at a meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee over the past weekend reaffirmed support for their leader and vowed to step up the fight against “traitors”.
It will take the Communist Party time to overcome the crisis, but when and if it reinvents itself, it will no longer have a monopoly on the left front that it enjoyed in the past elections.
This article was corrected for an error on April 4, 2012.