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Putin's 'Party of Power' and the Declining Power of Parties in Russia

[Cover of Putin's 'Party of Power' and the Declining Power of Parties in Russia]

Andrei Kunov, Mikhail Myagkov, Alexei Sitnikov, Dmitry Shakin

April 2005

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The 2003 Duma elections saw an overwhelming victory for President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party and drastic defeat for other political parties. Opposition calls for a recount went nowhere and many puzzles about voting trends in Russia went unanswered. This pamphlet presents the results of ground-breaking research from the Open Economy Institute in Moscow, using a new statistial method for understanding the flow of votes and electorate support between political parties. The authors find that the Russian electorate was far less predictable in the last cycle than in the first decade of modern Russian democracy; and argue that the prospects for an effective multi-party system are now bleak.

Executive Summary

This paper analyses the dynamics of political preference within the Russian electorate by comparing electoral support for major political parties in legislative and presidential elections from 1995 to 2004. It concludes that the shift in preference towards Putin's United Russia party, the 'party of power', has had a devastating effect on the multiparty system in Russia.

The authors argue that prior to the 2003 elections to the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian Legislative Assembly), political preferences of the voters were relatively stable and could be ascertained based on standard socio-economic factors, such as age, education, geographic location and income. During the 1995 and 1999 legislative elections, the major political parties managed to retain similar shares of the popular vote and fluctuations in voter preferences could be attributed to shifts in external conditions. On the one hand, growing disparities in living conditions contributed to sustained political support for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. On the other hand, democratic expectations of sizable portions of the population were the source of support for other political parties, such as "Yabloko" and the Union of Right Forces.

This situation changed dramatically during the 2003 legislative elections. The party of power – United Russia – managed to gather the largest portion of the popular vote and secured a constitutional majority in the State Duma. The Communists lost up to 60 per cent of their electorate. Democratic parties received dismal support and were not able to clear the five per cent threshold required for election to the Duma.

The authors identify the directions in preference shifts of the Russian electorate and sources of gains/losses among major political parties. Contrary to widespread belief, United Russia – the party supporting President Putin – did not receive the votes during the 2003 campaign that its predecessors (Unity and Fatherland) had received in the 1999 legislative elections. The electoral support of United Russia lacks any clear ideological direction and consists of many types of voters from all major political parties. The lack of independent ideology and diversity within its base complicates the electoral future of United Russia and casts doubt on its ability to retain a constitutional or simple majority in the Duma during the next electoral cycle. The stability of any party system decreases as ideological preferences in the electorate become more volatile. If parties cannot firmly define their electoral base, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to channel societal preferences into policy.

The opposition parties continued to lose support in the last legislative elections. The decrease in the Communist voting base can be attributed to a massive migration of CPRF voters to United Russia. The democratic opposition stood strong vis-à-vis the party of power, but suffered from electoral ignorance of their core supporters. The percentage of those voters who decided to stay home during the last legislative elections increased to 37 per cent and became the single largest source of voting base decrease for the democrats. The alarming tendency in the new structure of political preferences within the Russian electorate concerns the increase in the support for nationalist and populist parties, such as LDPR and Rodina (Motherland). During the 2003 electoral campaign these parties managed to attract a disproportionately high number of voters not just from the left wing of the political spectrum, but from all other major political parties, including United Russia.

The analysis of voting data from the 1996, 2000 and 2004 campaigns reveals that the overwhelming support of Vladimir Putin in 2000 and 2004 might reflect some irregular results in specific regions of Russia where there was an unusually high voter turnout and where distribution of relative support for major candidates was skewed in favour of the incumbent president.

Since the 2003 election, the political system in Russia can no longer be characterised as a system of stable and predictable voter preferences. We believe that while several factors contributed to the change of the electoral landscape, it is important to note that these factors originate in one place: the Kremlin. It was Putin's own perestroika – or 'vertical of power' – that changed not only the rules of the game, but players' incentives that had been forming throughout the 1990s. Under such conditions, the prospects for the formation and development of an effective multi-party system appear quite bleak.