Among the questions most actively being debated is how many parties will be represented in the new Duma.
Since the last Duma elections in 2003, the Kremlin has labored to reduce the number of parties in Russia. The country's Federal Registration Service has published a list naming just 15 parties that are eligible to participate in this year's vote, down from 35 in 2003.
However, all indications are that a much smaller number of parties -- as few as two -- currently have a chance of collecting the 7 percent of the vote required to pick up Duma seats.
According to a Levada Center poll in August, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party can currently expect 59 percent of the vote, while the Communist Party is running second with 18 percent support.
The left-leaning, pro-Kremlin A Just Russia is at 9 percent, and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) is exactly at 7 percent. All other parties, including the liberal Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces parties, seem to have no chance of appearing in the next Duma.
The conventional wisdom in Russia and abroad is that the Kremlin seeks to build a two-party system based on the right-centrist Unified Russia and the left-centrist A Just Russia. However, the project to promote A Just Russia seems to have stalled and, as the polls show, the party is dangerously close to the barrier.
Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Markov told kreml.org on September 4 that the main reason for A Just Russia's lackluster performance is that President Vladimir Putin has personally associated himself more closely with Unified Russia.
The failure of A Just Russia to enter the next Duma would be a major setback for the Kremlin -- an unallowable one. It would fuel accusations both within Russia and abroad that the Kremlin is seeking to create a single-party state. It would also make the presidential administration uncomfortably dependent on solid cooperation from a single party. Moreover, it would give the mildly oppositionist Communist Party too large a tribune as the only other bloc in the lower house.
The Kremlin's task, then, is to find additional support for A Just Russia. The party has made considerable efforts in recent months to bolster its rating.
In August, a congress of the Communist Youth Union, previously affiliated with the Communist Party, voted to back A Just Russia. However, following a major collapse in support in the 2003 Duma elections, the Communist electorate has stabilized at around 20 percent and it seems unlikely A Just Russia will pick up support there.
Zhirinovsky On The Ropes
A more lucrative target is Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR, and it appears that some forces in the presidential administration have their knives drawn for the small nationalist, pseudo-opposition party.
As A Just Russia has built up its base, rising from 5 percent in January to 9 percent in August, the LDPR has fallen from 11 percent to 7, according to Levada Center figures.
Historically, the LDPR has represented the poorest and most marginalized portion of the Russian electorate, although it appeals through nationalist rhetoric and flamboyant theatrics rather than socialist policies. In practice, the party's deputies vote consistently in favor of Kremlin initiatives.
Analysts have speculated at least since 1993, when the LDPR emerged as a major player, that the party was a project of the Russian security forces, who found the facade of potentially destabilizing nationalism a useful tool for maintaining their roles in Russia's political system.
The conventional wisdom is that the Kremlin seeks to build a two-party system based on the right-centrist Unified Russia and the left-centrist A Just Russia.
Recently, that role has shifted somewhat, and the LDPR played a big role in siphoning Communist votes in 2003. "The party is necessary to the Kremlin on the political scene because it captures marginal opposition votes that could go to the Communists and converts these popular opposition votes into loyal votes in the Duma," Markov told kreml.org.
From the perspective of the Kremlin's emerging two-party model, this is clearly the role A Just Russia should be playing, meaning that some Kremlin strategists could be thinking the age of Zhirinovsky is over. With the LDPR currently polling at 7 percent, it appears relatively small manipulations of the voting results could keep it out of the Duma.
The party has been under unrelenting assault in recent weeks. Most visibly, former LDPR Deputy Chairman Aleksei Mitrofanov defected to A Just Russia in August, mouthing the Kremlin-scripted line that all political forces had to unite in order to resist the juggernaut of Unified Russia. The LDPR's 2004 presidential candidate, Oleg Malyshkin, left the party in April and is now an "unaffiliated deputy."
More importantly, though, the Kremlin seems to be going after the party's funding. Billionaire Suleiman Kerimov left the LDPR in April and applied to join Unified Russia. Former Russneft head Mikhail Gutseriyev, a major LDPR funder for many years, recently fled the country and is facing tax-evasion and other charges. It seems unlikely that a party under such assault so early in the campaign, one whose rating was already declining and approaching the 7 percent barrier, can emerge from the elections with Duma seats.
The Kremlin's task of creating a managed two-party system is complicated by the fact that it was forced to do so using a proportional-representation system. Normally, a direct representation in a winner-take-all system such as in the United States is most conducive to the emergence of stable two-party political environment. Russia, however, is a vast country and experience with single-mandate deputies showed that they were overwhelmingly the representatives of the governors of the regions they were elected from. The Kremlin eliminated direct representation as part of its project to clip the wings of the governors.
Instead, the Kremlin modified the proportional-representation system by establishing the high 7 percent hurdle and establishing other onerous rules that pushed small parties out of the picture altogether. Now, strategists within the presidential administration are faced with the task of ensuring that the lumbering A Just Russia makes it past that hurdle. And it would seem that can be most easily accomplished by stepping on the back of Zhirinovsky's LDPR.