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Analysis & Opinion
08.02.12 The Party Is Over
By Eric Sliva

Ballots for municipal elections in Moscow will be missing a familiar name this year. All candidates from United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, have registered themselves as independents rather than under their own party. In doing so, they join Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in distancing themselves from United Russia ahead of the March 4 elections. Their actions are a strong display of no-confidence in the party, after last December’s parliamentary election exposed the tremendous drop in its public support. With candidates increasingly seeing United Russia as a liability, the future of the once all-powerful party is uncertain.

United Russia has dominated the Russian political scene for the last decade by presenting itself as Putin’s organizational and legislative arm. In recent years, however, it has increasingly been identified with corruption and political stagnation, and its support has plummeted. Last December, the party barely retained its majority in the State Duma, in elections marred by claims of rampant electoral fraud. The epithet “party of crooks and thieves,” coined by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, has become the ubiquitous symbol of popular dissatisfaction with the party.

Putin was declared United Russia’s presidential nominee at a televised party convention last September. Since December’s election result, however, he has sought to obscure all connections to the party. Putin is conducting his presidential campaign exclusively on the platform of the All-Russian National Front, an amorphous umbrella organization he created to appeal beyond United Russia. His campaign Web site contains no mention of United Russia or his role as party chairman. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the BBC that the prime minister had never been directly connected with United Russia and has always been seen as an independent politician. And before last Saturday’s pro-Putin demonstration in Moscow, journalists were reportedly given instructions to avoid mentioning the party or showing its symbols in their coverage.

But Putin remains the official candidate of United Russia, a situation that spares him from collecting signatures to register his candidacy. Under Russian electoral law, those nominated by parties represented in Parliament face no additional requirements for getting on the ballot. The signature process is a significant hurdle for independent candidates that often results in their failure to be registered.

United Russia candidates in Moscow’s municipal elections, also scheduled for March 4, have gone even further than Putin in distancing themselves from the party. Despite the procedural disadvantages of an independent candidacy, data from the Moscow Election Committee shows that all of the party’s candidates in the 125 local contests have registered as independents.

Such is the situation in North Ismailovsky, a residential district in the east of Moscow where 12 seats on the municipal council are up for grabs. The Communist, Liberal Democratic and Just Russia parties have fielded 15 candidates to compete with 21 independents. Of the seven United Russia members currently serving on the council, six are on the ballot this year as independents, while one is not seeking reelection. The ranks of the newly independent include Dmitry Dyatlenko, the current chairman of the North Ismailovsky municipal council. Dyatlenko was elected to his position in 2008 as the candidate from United Russia, of which he is a member. This year, however, he appears on the ballot as an independent. Dyatlenko declined to comment on the switch.

According to Boris Gryzlov, the chairman of United Russia’s Supreme Council, the decision to have the party’s candidates listed as independents was driven by the large number of contenders in Moscow. Rather than exclude those who wanted to campaign, the party decided to let the elections function as a sort of “people’s primaries” without lending support to specific nominees, he said on the party’s Web site last week. In the 2008 municipal elections, however, multiple nominees from United Russia also competed over the same seats, and they did so as registered United Russia candidates.

The political defections are not limited to Moscow, as candidates are shunning the party throughout Russia’s regions where municipal elections are scheduled. United Russia has no candidate for mayor in Arkhangelsk, and its mayoral candidate in Yaroslavl quit the party to run as an independent. In Kamyshin, a city of 120,000 near Volgograd, the current mayor was celebrated as the winner of a United Russia primary, but ultimately registered as an independent.

United Russia has “run up the white flag” by trying to disguise its candidates’ true identities, said Sergey Mironov, the leader of Just Russia. The party that once produced overwhelming victories has become an electoral liability for candidates, he said on his Web site.

There is no doubt that United Russia is in a difficult position, said Aleksander Kynev, the director of the regional program at the Russian Foundation for the Development of Information Policy. The party leadership has recognized the need for reform and may attempt a fundamental restructuring under a new name, he added.

Yuri Zagrebny, the editor in chief of the information portal Mossovyet, believes the window for reform has already passed. He compared United Russia’s situation to that of the Communist Party at the end of the Soviet Union, and predicted the party will “likely just disappear.”

Any model for United Russia’s replacement would likely seek to retain the party’s considerable resources and deep organization nationwide. With the next State Duma elections scheduled for 2017, party leaders have ample time to generate a successor. In the meantime, Russia’s regions could provide an indication of their degree of success: President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed amending the electoral system this year to reintroduce direct elections of regional governors.
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