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2 Sep, 2007 12:31

Parties kick off parliamentary election campaign

The election campaign for seats in the State Duma is officially underway. Voters will choose deputies for the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament on December 2, three months before the presidential election is due to be held.

President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree authorising the start of the election campaign for seats in the State Duma. The Duma elections are vital in determining the country's political landscape for the future and parties have already kicked off their quest for voters.

“These are the first Russian parliamentary elections with a full proportional system. What does it mean? On December 2, Russian citizens will vote for the lists of party candidates from each party that will have a possibility to participate in these elections. So, that means that our citizens will vote commonly for a party and for concrete persons from party lists,” said Vladimir Churov, Chairman of the Central Elections Committee.

Now all one can see in the State Duma building are empty chairs and abandoned microphones. Russia’s discussion chamber has been silent for more than a month – but this is just the calm before the storm. Deputies are on their summer break at the moment but they have no time to rest. Although the presidential decree has just been signed, the election campaign is already in full swing.

In the communist headquarters, the feeling of nostalgia is palpable. Nowadays the party has 10% of the seats, but back in the 1990s it was the largest group in the Duma. On the walls are pictures of once massive rallies and in the chairman’s office there are pertinent  presents from the past.

This wooden doll was presented to the communists a decade ago. Back then, the party held a firm grip over the country, pretty much like this doll.

“Compared to 1990s, it's harder to fight for power now. Yeltsin, by his actions, actually helped us garner support. The current authorities are more sophisticated, so challenging them is more difficult,” Yury Petrakov from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation noted.

Office space has always been hard to find in the Duma, but not for the United Russia party. With almost 70% of the seats, it has the first say in most matters, including the distribution of offices. The view from the window onto the Kremlin reflects its political affiliation. Still, the number of pro-Kremlin parties is growing, which means United Russia will have to make room for competitors.

Considering the recent changes in the electoral law, getting 70% once again will be very difficult. I think it’s even impossible. Our goal is to get a simple majority,” Vladimir Ryazansky from United Russia commented.

United Russia’s closest rival has a similar agenda, a similar name and similar loyalties. However, the chairman of Fair Russia claims it’s different.

“We support the current President but we are against political monopoly. That’s what makes our numbers grow,” Sergei Mironov from the Fair Russia party emphasised.

As of now, Fair Russia has just 7% of the seats, but many experts believe the party will be among the best performers in the December elections.

Aleksey Mitrofanov spent 16 years promoting populist ideas before knocking on the door of Fair Russia. He says switching parties is a trend of the season.

“We are not defectors. In the 1970s, our ice hockey coach Viktov Tikhonov pulled resources from various clubs to create the Soviet national team that won many world championships. Fair Russia is like that,” Aleksey Mitrofanov said.

Ahead of the fight for the parliament, Mr Mitrofanov’s former boss Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s taking time off at a health centre. Back in the 1990s, his hard-line agenda won him 15% of the seats, which has now halved. But he’s confident his golden years are still to come.

With four parties currently represented in the Russian parliament, it has the same number as Canada and more than the United States, though this may change. Starting from this year, candidates cannot run by themselves. They have to be members of a registered political party. For independent deputies like Vladimir Ryzhkov, that leaves little choice.

“The fate of independent deputies is now in the hands of party machines. I’ve run for parliament four times and have always won. But now I have to look for a party if I want to continue my service,” Mr Ryzhkov said.

Another change is the number of votes required to win a seat. It used to be 5% of the total vote but now it’s 7%. For opposition parties, like the Union of Right Forces, which failed to reach the threshold in the last elections, it makes it even harder to get into the parliament.

“These changes are biased and unfair to the opposition, but it’s the law and we have to abide by it. If we make it to the Duma, we’ll try changing it,” Nikita Belykh from the Union of Right Forces stated.

But complaints aside, all of them are now ready to fight for seats in the Duma.