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Russia: What's At Stake In Parliamentary Election?

The Russian parliamentary campaign officially began on 3 September, with the publication of a presidential decree confirming 7 December as the day voters will cast their ballots for both party lists and individual deputies to form the 450-strong lower house, or Duma. The current Duma is largely perceived as Kremlin-controlled and the upcoming election is not expected to wield any surprises. Still, the political atmosphere is heating up.

Moscow, 5 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- More often than not, the present Duma is seen more as a rubber-stamp body for Kremlin decisions than a full-fledged parliamentary organ. In this, it is often held in contrast to the Boris Yeltsin-era, Communist-dominated lower house, which effectively blocked most Kremlin-initiated legislation, and was known as a forum for fistfights and shouting matches.

Few fireworks are expected during this December's parliamentary elections, which are widely expected to be a political formality with a foregone conclusion -- a pro-Kremlin majority. But the margin of the Kremlin's victory -- wide or narrow -- will nonetheless have an impact on future Russian policy.

The lower house is currently dominated by the pro-Kremlin Unity faction, which holds about 180 of the Duma's 450 seats. Unity and its spin-offs are expected to do even better in the December vote. Right now, Unity holds nearly 30 percent of the Duma votes, with the Communists following close behind. The remaining votes are divided up between the opposition: agrarians and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).

But this time around, Unity is expected to win a big part of the seats going to individual candidates where party allegiance counts less than local visibility -- something that still works to the advantage of pro-Kremlin local authorities. Analysts say the Kremlin is sure to broaden its control of the Duma. But they say the race still matters.

Alexei Makarkin works for the Center for Political Technologies, an established Moscow think tank. He says, so far, the Duma has proven itself loyal to the Kremlin, but "not under its total control."

"Political loyalty does not mean total complete loyalty, loyalty in everything. There exists a whole series of issues economic, or where lobbying [plays a role] -- where the deputies act a little more independently. And its not a coincidence that some legislation that flies through the Duma in a first reading is seriously amended in the next stage of parliamentary work," Makarkin says.

For instance, Russia's historic land-reform bill introducing private landownership was adopted in a first reading. But in a second reading, the law was amended -- against the Kremlins will -- to suit the taste of many deputies who actually oppose broad private ownership of land, particularly by foreigners.

Makarkin says the Kremlin also has a hard time overcoming the lobbying powers of industrial groups. For instance, influential oil and metals companies have managed to block laws introducing increased taxation or stricter licensing in their sectors. Some analysts say that the Kremlin's recent offensive against oil giant Yukos was meant to trump the lobbying powers of these "oligarchic groups."

Russia boasts a strong presidential regime. But the Duma does have other parts to play beyond merely adopting and amending laws before passing them on to the Federation Council, the famously compliant upper house. Among other key Duma responsibilities is confirming the prime minister chosen by the president, and ratifying international treaties.

Most importantly, the Duma can also initiate constitutional reform. And thats precisely what the Kremlin has in mind as it pursues a broad majority in the upcoming elections, says Jean-Robert Raviot, a French political scientist with Nanterre University who is publishing a book this year on the workings of the Russian political elite.

"It wont be tricky [for the Kremlin] to win. I think what is at stake for the authorities is to get an absolute majority of seats -- maybe even a two-thirds majority. [Everything] will be done so that Unity rakes in a maximum amount of votes and so that independent candidates that support the Kremlin [get elected]," Raviot says.

Once the Kremlin controls two-thirds of the seats, Raviot explains, it can initiate and pass constitutional reforms virtually unchallenged. While the Kremlin has denied it has any intention of altering Russia's fundamental laws, ideas about constitutional reform are also floated in the Russia media. Some constitutional reform proposals under recent debate include slashing the number of federal regions and reducing their powers, and prolonging the presidential term.

As the elections approach, the Kremlin will be striving not just to drum up interest in its own parties, but in the voting process overall. Low voter turnout usually means a higher percentage goes to the Communists, whose voters are usually older and more civic-minded. This may explain why Alexander Veshnyakov, the usually dour head of Russia's Central Election Commission, did his best to stir up a little excitement at the start of the campaign this week.

Speaking in a tone usually reserved for game-show hosts, Veshnyakov promised journalists that the election "won't be boring."

"The party that proves its standing will get parliamentary mandates. It will gain a number of advantages. The first advantage, one that never existed until now, is state financing in proportion to the number of ballots it wins. The second advantage is that the party that proves its standing at these elections will have the right to present candidates for elections on any level -- from presidential to the village council -- without collecting signatures and without paying a deposit. Third, they get the parliamentary forum [to voice their ideas]," Veshnyakov said.

As the cherry on the cake, Veshnyakov added: "And one other thing -- that is today under discussion and that the president is leaning toward -- is the possibility of forming the government on the basis of a parliamentary majority."

But Raviot says the electoral commission is more than just an enthusiastic bystander. He says Veshnyakov -- under the pretext of trying to cut down on illegal campaign practices and mud-slinging -- has approved new legislation that effectively muzzles the opposition. The electoral commission has wide powers to refuse to register a candidate or remove him or her from the race prior to the vote.

The same legislation also restricts the medias freedom to cover campaigns and even ordinary citizens right to publicly support their candidates.

Makarkin defends the election law as "pretty fair," adding, "Experience shows that in Russia you cant reasonably expect a court or an electoral commission to decide against the Kremlin."