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   September 23
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Analysis & Opinion
23.11.11 Power Beats Money
By Tai Adelaja

Russia’s ruling United Russia party is benefiting from state resources ahead of upcoming legislative elections to such an extent that no amount of funding for challenging political parties could overcome the governing party’s dominance, opposition leaders and political analysts say. "War chests will play little or no role in deciding the outcome of the State Duma elections," said Olga Mefodyeva, an expert at the Center for Political Information, a Moscow think tank. "The single most effective way to win elections here is to possess the so-called administrative resources and United Russia has a lot of that."

All of the seven registered Russian parties lined up for the December 4 State Duma elections demonstrate a strong increase in sums collected and spent when compared with the previous campaign in 2007. All the parties together collected 2.79 billion rubles ($89.9 million), but spent 1.74 billion rubles ($56. million), the Vedomosti business daily reported on Tuesday citing figures from state-owned Sberbank, which keeps track of receipts and expenditures by political parties.

Pro-Kremlin United Russia showed the second best result by raising 430 million rubles ($13.8 million), while the Liberal Democratic Party emerged as a fundraising champion with 473 million rubles ($15.2 million) in campaign contributions. The Yabloko party, which hopes to make a comeback after an eight-year hiatus, collected 164 million rubles ($5.2 million), tripping the Communist Party that said it netted 120 million rubles ($3.8 million). The Just Russia party collected 202 million rubles ($6.5 million) to clinch the third place.

However, the depth of the parties’ pockets does not necessarily translate into their electoral prospects, pollsters say. While the Right Cause party led the pack for months with a war chest of 350.7 million rubles ($11.4 million), it only garnered one percent in the latest opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center. The Liberal Democratic Party also raised more money than United Russia, but is expected to receive 11 percent compared to 60 percent for the ruling party, polling data shows.

Political analysts explain this disparity by the advantage given to United Russia by the incumbency, as well as the control it exercises over the regional authorities and media outlets such as the television. “At this point nobody actively follows the basic rules set for campaign finance, not one party,” said Elena Panfilova, the head of the Russian branch of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog. “With United Russia it’s obvious – you see buses used to transport voters and other resources being put to use for the campaign, and it becomes clear that it has nothing to do with their campaign finance because they can use administrative resources.”

Mefodyeva said the ruling party has “status resources,” which makes it an easily recognizable brand when juxtaposed with other political parties. “Status resources help the party attract people who will ordinarily not want to be identified with it,” Mefodyeva said. “For instance, United Russia is the only party fielding the largest number of vice-premiers in this year’s regional elections. That enhances its status as the dominant party.”

Moreover, President Dmitry Medvedev is leading the party's electoral list in the December Duma vote, even as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – who is likely to be Russia's next president – holds the party’s formal leadership. The men are not members of the party, but they get positive carpet coverage by state-run media, especially television.

Media reports indicate that regional authorities have been using their offices to campaign for United Russia on several occasions. Over the past two months there have been at least two reported cases of electoral blackmail by senior officials in the Udmurtia Region. In the latest example, Alexander Goriyanov, a United Russia official and the head of the governor’s office in Udmurtia, while speaking at a televised event threatened funding cutbacks for a local town unless it votes for his party in the upcoming State Duma elections. On another occasion, Denis Agashin, the city manager of the regional capital Izhevsk, demanded that local pensioners must vote for United Russia if they want more money for social programs aimed at them.

Such reported abuse by United Russia is a serious concern for smaller opposition parties, such as Yabloko, which hopes to enter the State Duma this year after eight years in the cold. "We are concerned about the use and misuse of administrative resources by members of the ruling party," said Yabloko Party Leader Sergei Mitrokhin. "Although we very much hope to cross the seven percent threshold for Duma entry, everything in this election depends on how the ‘party of power’ behaves."

Abuse of authority during the campaign aside, many questions still linger about how parties spend their money to boost their ratings ahead of the elections. Russian legislation raised the amount that each political party could spend on this year's parliamentary elections from 400 million rubles ($13.2 million) to 700 million rubles ($23 million), but analysts said the spending limits are not sufficient to run effective national campaigns. This has forced some parties to resort to various murky schemes, like using cash to pay for campaign obligations.

Lilia Shibanova, the executive director of the GOLOS election watchdog, said this practice has made it impossible to track the true expenditures of the political parties on everything from services paid for out of pocket to the employment of administrative, or government, resources during the campaigns.

Reports also abound of parties selling positions on party lists to rich businessmen to raise money. In the past elections, parties like the LDPR had catapulted moneybags into the State Duma by putting them on their electoral list. Former businessman Ashot Yegiazaryan, the first sitting State Duma deputy to ever flee the country, has been an LDPR Duma deputy since 1999. So has billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, who was for some time the deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Physical Culture, Sports and Youth, even though he was rarely seen at Duma debates.

The practice was so rampant that President Vladimir Putin told United Russia party's convention in October 2007 to bar big business from politics. In one of the most recent examples, however, Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov was forced to beat back accusations from Lyudmila Komogortseva, the head of the Bryansk branch of the party, that the Bryansk branch of the party was selling places on the party’s electoral list to "fat cats from Moscow."

The electoral rules for raising campaign funds in Russia have also come under criticism, with many analysts saying they are both murky and complex. Campaign finance filings suggest that business people, who typically channel even legal contributions via intermediaries, are the main source of funds for all parties. Almost all the registered parties – from the Communist Party to the Patriots of Russia Party – have listed, albeit anonymously, deep-pocketed donors as contributors. Staying in the shade, experts say, helps businesses to avoid retaliation on the part of state authorities against donors who provide funds to parties or candidates not favored by the Kremlin. “Business and politics are not separate in Russia, and the Kremlin’s not eager to see minor parties get funding,” said Carnegie Center expert Nikolai Petrov. “This can lead them into trouble."
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