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Russia: Duma Elections -- Little Suspense, But Plenty Of Impact (Part 3)

There are few surprises expected in 7 December elections for the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. The Kremlin is widely expected to maintain or even strengthen its working majority in the 450-seat body. With the ballot generating so little suspense, many Russians appear convinced that the vote is largely unimportant. But some observers say the election will be a key indication of how far the Kremlin can go in wielding its power.

Moscow, 4 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There seems to be only one question surrounding this weekend's election -- will the Kremlin merely maintain its current parliamentary majority, or will its hold grow even stronger?

Andrei Zakharov heads the Center for Developing Parliamentarianism in Russia. He explained why the elections are not expect to wield any major surprises: "The peculiarity of these elections is that they won't decide much. These are the first parliamentary elections in post-Soviet Russia that don't serve the function of primaries ahead of presidential elections, because everyone already knows who the next president will be. What does this mean? First of all it means that there will probably be a low turnout. And secondly it means that it will reproduce a Duma similar to the one we have now."

But some observers argue that the results are important nonetheless. Henry Hale, a professor of Russian studies at Indiana University in the United States, says ruling with a strong hand is a key to Vladimir Putin's style of government. And in this, he says, the Duma plays a crucial role.

"Putin has been able to get a lot of things passed with very little social conflict. The radical 13 percent flat tax -- that was absolutely unbelievable, that he was able to get that passed so easily," Hale said.

The pliant lower house also made it possible for Putin to push through other controversial initiatives like tougher election laws, and the ratification of the START-2 arms-reduction treaty. All the while, Putin was able to maintain an aura of stability in Russia, and was never reduced to governing by decree in the confrontational style of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

The present Duma can assemble a working majority of 226 seats. But of those, 145 belong to Unified Russia, with the remainder coming from allied factions and Vladimir Zhirinovskii's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). But Unified Russia is expected to as much as double its seats this time around, meaning it will be far less dependent on occasional allies to push its policies through.

Unified Russia is expected to do especially well in single-mandate districts, which traditionally have been a Communist stronghold thanks to the influence of so-called red governors. But observers say the Kremlin has done an effective job of neutralizing the Communist influence in a number of such districts, and may win as many as 100 of the 225 single-mandate seats.

Nikolai Petrov is a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. He says if Unified Russia meets its goals, the Kremlin will come one step closer to gaining complete control over the country's institutions. "This will be a Duma that will be even more approving of the Kremlin than the previous one, and in this sense, nothing much will change," he said. "But the principal significance of the Duma elections is that they will put to the test the so-called 'managed democracy' model of power."

Depending on the outcome, Petrov says, the elections will either secure Putin's place at the head of a "managed democracy" or prove that political pluralism still exists in Russia.

Much depends on how the democratic opposition fares. Polls indicate that the two strongest parties -- Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- may not make it past the 5 percent party-list barrier to get into the Duma. SPS leader Irina Khakamada yesterday referred to the situation as "catastrophic," although Yabloko head Grigorii Yavlinskii has become an increasingly visible presence on state television in recent days, stirring speculation that his chances may be improving.

But while Yabloko and SPS may win a handful of single-mandate seats, it may not be enough to ensure they gain the 12 deputies needed to form a faction, the basic power cell within the Duma.

Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov says the loss of opposition factions will only further weaken a Duma that has already proved too obedient. Therefore, he says, the vote is more important than many people think. "Parliament should have a point of view. Parliament should [be able] from time to time to successfully defend its [views] against those of the head of state. Because the head of state can also make mistakes. [But] today parliament is much too weak, much too weak," he said.

Ryzhkov says there are certain advantages to a working majority -- such as the Duma's relative ease in pushing through certain economic reforms. Still, he says, the current parliament would often cave in to the executive even when it was right to resist -- as was the case with this year's controversial law restricting Russian citizenship, a decision the Kremlin was later forced to have amended.

The first two post-Soviet parliaments, by contrast, had strong Communist factions that proved constant sparring partners with the Kremlin over liberal reforms. In the chaotic aftermath of the 1998 financial crisis, the second Duma even succeeded in briefly imposing a left-leaning government.

A sweeping victory by Unified Russia would leave the Duma more pliable than ever, and could even grant the Kremlin the one weapon missing from its arsenal: the two-thirds majority needed to initiate amendments to certain aspects of the constitution. With 285 seats bolstered by deputies from Zhirinovskii's nationalist LDPR, which often votes pro-Kremlin, the government would essentially be stripped of all checks and balances. Ryzhkov said there would be no faction left with the power to curb "temptations" to change the constitution.

"I am a democrat, so I want just one thing: that no one holds 300 votes in his hands, that there is a guarantee that the constitution, and the society, won't be subject to any catastrophic scenarios -- the canceling of elections, the canceling of federalism, extending the term of state officials," Ryzhkov said, adding that any change to the constitution "can only be made through compromise."

What would Putin do with a constitutional majority? So far, the Russian president has denied any plans to amend the constitution. But he may need to dabble with the constitution in order to push forward with his plans for political centralization -- or, as some of his supporters have suggested, seek a third term.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)