C o m m e n t a r y election year ahead

Russia is entering a festive period starting with the Catholic Christmas and ending in the Old-style Orthodox New Year. It is a long-standing tradition that in the last three years these weeks were, as a rule, economically and politically quiet. Observers have little doubts that the 2002-2003 holiday season will not be an exception to this cyclic pattern. But next year stands out as an election year.

Usually by springtime the economy, recovering from the forced holiday idleness, the inevitable seasonal rise in gas, electricity and railway traffic tariffs, rebounds again reaching quite decent levels by mid-year. Political life seems to catch up on the economic activity culminating at the beginning of the budgetary process. It results in a new compromise formula derived by the coalition between the Government and the Parliament. Meanwhile the economy, invulnerable to political crises, continues its steady growth.

Holiday season public opinion surveys carried out by sociologists suggest that the well-developed pattern is likely to repeat next year. However, there are controversial points, because elections to the State Duma are due at the end of 2003 followed by the launch of the presidential election campaign. The impact of the political struggle is bound to increase and the election race is likely to tighten. Which makes us think about the unexpected.

The polls carried out by the Public Opinion Fund suggest that the ruling United Russia Party was relatively popular among the Russian population. 24-25% of the respondents, or, in other words, a quarter of the 2003 potential electorate, spoke in its favor.

It is followed by the Communist Party favored by 22% of the respondents. This trend has been observed in recent years. That is why if no other party launches a political breakthrough, then the alignment of forces in the State Duma is unlikely to change.

The Liberal Democrats, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces also have a good chance to win a seat in Parliament. However they remain far down the list with only 5-7% of the population pronouncing in their favor. It is another long-standing tradition observed over a number of years. So, none of these three candidates is likely to be an election challenge for the race leaders. Neither will they remain bench-warmers.

Unlike the Unified Russia and the Communist Party, which can be called parties of a wide (although differently interpreted) social spectrum and reasonable choice, the Liberal Democrats, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces are parties of quite subjective and therefore ineradicable electoral preferences. It is only typical that besides having staunch supporters, these parties have hardliner opponents as well.

According to the Public Opinion Fund data, the Liberal Democrats are not welcomed in the State Duma by 18% of the respondents.

On the other hand, both Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces do not lack ill-wishers, 8% each.

So, a year before the parliamentary elections we can already speak of major figures as set and ranged. Taking into account the stability of electoral preferences of the Russians, the conclusion is easy to make. However, the key political question of the coming year is not so much the electoral arrangement of parties, but the impact of the Duma elections on the governmental policy at large and especially on who will make it. It not a secret that any political party in the world is flattered at being given an opportunity to form the government. Unfortunately, sociologists fail to gauge that impact.

But it seems the President can. In his live interview with the Russian population Vladimir Putin said that in such a vast, multinational and multi-confessional country as Russia, the President must appoint and discharge ministers, and not the Parliament.

To be more exact, sociologists have an indirect proof that the presidential position can be regarded as preliminary interpretation of the coming parliamentary elections' outcome. According to the Public Opinion Fund, Vladimir Putin's current rating is 53%; none of the Russian leaders had such a strong backing since the launch of open public opinion research in Russia.

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