Are All Politics Local? The Decisive Role of the District Races in the 2003 Duma Ballot
At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Robert Orttung, Associate Research Professor at American University's Transnational Crime and Corruption Center; Visiting Scholar at the Center for Security Studies of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology; and former Title VIII-Supported Short-term Scholar at the Kennan Institute discussed some preliminary conclusions from his research on the 2003 Russian Duma elections, which were held on 7 December. Orttung noted that he focused on races in the single-mandate districts, in contrast to most other studies, which focus on the nation-wide party list ballot. He argued that an analysis of the district races provides a more complete picture of the impact of the elections on the political situation in Russia.
Overall, the pro-Putin United Russia party took the majority of seats in the Duma. Nationalist parties more than doubled their share of seats from the previous Duma, while the Communist party lost over half of its seats and the two liberal parties were reduced to seven seats combined. Orttung gave several explanations for these results. He argued that the success of the nationalist parties does not imply an explosion of nationalism in Russia. The nationalist parties, like United Russia, based their campaigns primarily on economic and anti-oligarch themes—not on xenophobia. Orttung also noted that while nationalist parties were successful in the party list race, individual nationalist candidates won only a small handful of district races.
Orttung suggested two main reasons for the success of United Russia and other pro-Putin candidates in the district races. First, Putin was able to create a vertical chain of command through which he mobilized regional leaders, who in turn mobilized mayors, to get out the vote for Kremlin-supported candidates. Orttung referred to this strategy as "machine politics in its purest form." Second, United Russia's message had more resonance with the voters than did either the Communists' or the liberals' messages. Orttung believes that the Duma elections were successful in removing from the political scene parties that had no popular support.
Other analysts have described the Duma elections as providing Putin with a mandate to carry out whatever reforms he chooses, but Orttung disagreed with this interpretation. He argued that "there is a trend of all Russian presidents, that they amass power and never use it," and that, for all Putin's apparent strength, he is unlikely to enact major reforms for a number of reasons. Orttung explained that neither Putin nor United Russia has ever espoused any platform or ideology more specific than a strong state and a better life for Russians. Therefore, it is not clear that the very diverse United Russia deputies will always be united in supporting Putin's initatives. Orttung also argued that Putin is now somewhat beholden to regional leaders and their political machines.
Orttung was uncertain as to the future of democracy in Russia. He predicted that the defeat of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces has the potential to open the field for a new liberal opposition party that could better address the concerns of voters. However, he cautioned that given Russia's political climate of media manipulation and abuse of administrative resources, new parties might not be able to take hold. He also expressed concern over signs of growing political apathy, such as decreasing voter turnout, and evidence of greater protest voting, seen in the increasing popularity of choosing the "against all of the above" option on ballots.