Russia's Party Problem: United Russia, Putin, and the Fate of Democracy in Russia
If "you read the great theorists of democracy…they all describe democracy as being unmanageable, unimaginable, unworkable, without political parties. I think that this understanding has informed a lot of initial expectations about Russia," stated Henry Hale, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University, at a 30 January 2006 Kennan Institute event. There is a widespread perception, Hale argued, that strong political parties should have developed in Russia, but have not. He cautioned, however, that the reality is more complex. Although both of Russia's presidents, most regional governors, and a large number of legislators have been non-partisan, there is significant evidence that Russian voters are aware of the major parties and their platforms, and that parties do have a measurable impact on voting decisions.
This paradox can be explained, Hale argued, by looking at parties from a market perspective. "Candidates," he explained, "are consumers of goods and services that help them…win votes. Parties, then, are a supplier of goods and services that help candidates get elected." These services include organizational assistance, campaign funding, reputation, and electoral know-how. Hale noted that his research has indicated that Russian political parties do supply these services to candidates. While the services provided are not on the same level as those of European and American parties, they do help candidates to win elections, he contended.
However, in Russia, parties are not the only source of these services, Hale said. Other organizations, such as regional political machines and politicized financial-industrial groups can act as "party substitutes," providing the financial and logistical support that helps candidates to get elected. For example, Hale noted that in the Perm' region, the Lukoil-Permneft conglomerate ran its own slate of candidates in elections to the national parliament. This level of political involvement, he emphasized, goes beyond the corporate lobbying and campaign contributions that are common in all democratic states.
Alternatives to party membership are attractive to political candidates in Russia, according to Hale, because joining a party involves costs. Frequently, these costs are monetary—Russian parties often require their members to finance their operations. In addition, candidates wishing to join a political party must toe the party line, and may have to compete with other members for a place on the party list or the nomination for an individual seat. "I think it's not surprising, given this kind of competition, that we might not have seen parties close out the electoral market," Hale concluded.
Hale noted that this situation is not unique to Russia. India and the United States—two other large states where district-based elections are the norm—both went through periods when political parties were weak and non-party structures dominated the political scene. India's party system was strengthened after 1947 when the Congress Party, riding a wave of popularity that came out of India's successful independence movement, swallowed up many of the party substitutes. According to Hale, this scenario could have been a possibility in Russia if Boris Yeltsin had ever given his full support to a party. However, he argued that Yeltsin feared that such a strong party would diminish his own power.
In the United States, Martin Van Buren successfully united several of the state political machines under the banner of popular politician Andrew Jackson in order to form the Democratic Party. Hale said that this scenario was attempted in Russia, and almost succeeded. Before the 2000 presidential elections, Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov joined forces with other regional leaders to form the Fatherland-All Russia party, which nominated former Prime Minister Evgenii Primakov for president. Primakov seemed most likely to win the elections, until his popularity was overshadowed by the rapid and unexpected rise of Vladimir Putin.
Nonpartisanship in Russia has declined under Putin, according to Hale. "Putin, while not going so far as to actually join a political party himself, has in fact gone further than other Russian presidents in promoting a party system," he contended. Hale believes that Putin and his advisers became concerned that if all the various non-party structures were not united in support of the Kremlin, they could eventually be united in opposition. Feeling that Putin would certainly win the 2000 election, the regional leaders and corporate figures who had previously supported Fatherland-All Russia switched their support to the newly-created pro-Putin Unity party. Since coming to power, Putin has enacted a number of reforms—such as getting rid of the single-mandate districts for Duma deputies—that have strengthened the position of parties, particularly United Russia, the current pro-Kremlin party.
Hale concluded that Russia's political system, in which the president holds a great deal of power, tends to distort the role of political parties. Either the president sees no need for parties and leaves them weak, or he supports a party system, but tilts the playing field to favor a particular party. The lack of a strong party system is a negative sign for democracy in Russia, but according to Hale, it does not mean that democracy is dead: "If Putin doesn't seek a third term…we might well see renewed political competition in Russia...[and] once you have competition, even if it starts out as being channeled by the Kremlin, it can take on real meaning and open up avenues for the masses to express their views."