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Russia: Unified Russia's 'Ideology-Lite'

By Peter Lavelle (AFP) Unified Russia candidates lead in public-opinion polls on the eve of Moscow's 4 December local assembly poll. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, one of the co-leaders of Unified Russia, has pulled out the stops in promoting the party’s electoral list. Expected to win big, Unified Russia impending victory will be because of what it stands for (or perhaps doesn't stand for) and not due to its high-profile and expensive campaign.

Unified Russia, the Kremlin's governing party pedestal, is like no other in the country. Its appeal does not come from any well-defined ideology or policy platform. As the "party of power," Unified Russia presents itself as covering most of the political spectrum. This is the party's most important electoral advantage as it forces other political parties to define themselves in reference to Unified Russia.

Conventional wisdom holds that Unified Russia's electoral success is because it is the party of President Vladimir Putin and backed by the Kremlin's enormous "administrative resources." That, however, does not go far enough in explaining the party's appeal among voters.

Putin has repeatedly identified himself with Unified Russia without being a card carrying member, but he is not widely seen as representing the party. The importance of "administration resources" -- like control of the media, manipulation of the judiciary, and access to piles of hard cash -- to Russian politics may not be as crucial as some claim. Since 1993, a third of the electorate has consistently supported the party or group parties deemed to be the "party of power" with an identifiable and popular leader irrespective of "administrative resources."

Russia's "party of power" has gone through a number of mutations: Russia's Choice in 1993; Our Home is Russia in
Putin has repeatedly identified himself with Unified Russia without being a card carrying member, but he is not widely seen as representing the party.
1995; Unity, and Fatherland/All Russia in 1999; Unified Russia in 2003. In all cases, to various degrees, each mutation presented itself to voters as the "party of power" and espoused more or less the same political rhetoric -- a mixture of liberal, conservative, national, and social messages.

This mixture of messages is distinctly non-ideological or what could be called "ideology-lite." This is not to say that Unified Russia's membership is uniform in political outlook. Far from it, Unified Russia is known to have members holding extreme ideological positions concerning social and foreign policies. However, none of these extremes have ever become predominate.

What maintains the party's sense of cohesion is how the rest of the political spectrum reacts to Unified Russia's "ideology-lite." Russian political parties in competition with Unified Russia don't have an easy task.

The liberal-conservative parties Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) have had most of their ideological positions hijacked by Unified Russia. Both parties certainly disagree with many of the policy positions of Unified Russia, including protection of property rights, state ownership of media outlets, and other issues. Putin's presidential administration, however, has drawn up unpopular liberal-conservative legislation, which has subsequently been passed into law. Interestingly, Yabloko and SPS end up bickering among themselves -- appearing at times to be extreme ideologues in the process -- when confronted with Unified Russia's "ideology-lite" application of their agenda.
To differentiate their rightist-nationalist agendas from Unified Russia's both Rodina and Motherland have moved in a direction the "party in power" won't go: promotion of xenophobia and racism.

Russia's rightist-nationalist parties have it a little easier when differentiating themselves from Unified Russia. Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Dmitrii Rogozin's Motherland (Rodina) bloc compete for the same voters, but also must contend with voters who find Unified Russia sufficiently patriotic and nationalistic.

To differentiate their rightist-nationalist agendas from Unified Russia's both have moved in a direction the "party in power" won't go: promotion of xenophobia and racism , thus legitimating de facto Unified Russia's patriotic agenda. Motherland's Moscow election television advertisement pandering to racial prejudice against migrant workers from the North Caucasus may certainly mobilize those voters displeased with the city's immigration polices, but it also showed Motherland to be an ideological party -- something a solid majority of voters have traditionally shied away from.

Unified Russia's secret to electoral success appears to be very simple: it knows that a significant part of the electorate will vote for the "party of power" if it is represented by a strong and popular figure irrespective of specific ideological specifics. The Kremlin's pedestal party must also realize that parties that present themselves as "ideological" only attract niche voter bases.

Significantly, Unified Russia has thwarted the development of a meaningful liberal-nationalist party. Such a party could challenge the party's current hegemony. Until such a pedigree arrives to challenge the political status quo, Unified Russia's "ideology-lite" will prevail for the majority of Russian voters. Mayor Luzhkov is hoping that will not happen before 4 December.

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