Where Personality Rules and Political Parties Don't Stick ; Many of the Dozen Entities in the Running for Dec. 19 Elections to the Duma Weren't around a Year Ago

Article excerpt

Russia's campaign season is in full swing ahead of Dec. 19 elections to the Duma, Russia's powerful lower house of parliament.

Russian elections tend to resemble a popularity contest among political gurus, many of whom consider themselves above the rough- and-tumble world of grass- roots political organizing and debate.

"Our political process remains very ad hoc and personality- centered," says Alexander Zyabrev, an analyst with the independent Institute of Contemporary Politics in Moscow. "The idea of a party, rooted in a lasting constituency and standing for definite principles, has not taken off."

Of the nearly dozen parties, movements, and coalitions in the running, most weren't around for the last elections four years ago. Three of the biggest groups didn't exist earlier this year.

Despite dumping communism and setting out to build democratic institutions nearly a decade ago, Russia still has only one Western- style political party that transcends individual leaders and short- term electoral goals. Ironically, it's the Communist Party, which enjoys a 100-year history, a nationwide structure of local cells, hundreds of thousands of loyal - mostly elderly - members, and identification with a set of enduring philosophical principles.

Opinion surveys currently put the Communists' support at just less than 20 percent, but in 1996 its lackluster leader, Gennady Zyuganov, won 41 percent of the vote in a hard-fought presidential contest against incumbent Boris Yeltsin.

"The Communist Party is the only one that would go on, and maybe even improve, if its leader disappeared," says Alexei Podberyozkin, onetime chief strategist for Mr. Zyuganov, who was expelled from the party after a political squabble earlier this year. "For its own stability, this country needs to develop a genuine multi-party system. That's happening, but far too slowly," he says.

Russia's 1993 Constitution aimed to stimulate the growth of responsible, nation- spanning political parties by making half of the Duma's 450 seats electable on the basis of party lists and requiring that an organization win at least 5 percent of the vote to gain entry to parliament.

The results varied wildly. In 1993 Duma elections, nearly a quarter of Russians voted for the most appealing character. That turned out to be flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party showed how to win elections in Russia.

"Most Russians tend to look at the individual politician and take his personality for a program," says Mr. Zyabrev. …