Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Victims of a Managed Democracy? Explaining the Electoral Decline of the Yabloko Party

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Victims of a Managed Democracy? Explaining the Electoral Decline of the Yabloko Party

Article excerpt

Imagine a football game. It requires goals, a ball, and a field. Now it is as if we have neither goals nor a field, nor a ball-only a signboard declaring the score. As soon as you enter the stadium you can see who has won, and the score. Taking part in such a procedure is impossible.1


For scholars of political parties in postcommunist Russia, the December 2003 State Duma election was noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) suffered a massive decline in support, losing half of its electorate. Second, the pro-presidential United Russia (YeR) party gained over one-third of the vote to become the largest faction in the State Duma and was joined in parliament by the Kremlin-created Motherland (Rodina) bloc. Third, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), outwardly fond of nationalist rhetoric but nevertheless supportive of the regime, more than doubled the size of its Duma faction. For the liberal parties, the electoral outcome was catastrophic. The collapse in the liberal-reformist vote and the consequent failure of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) to pass the 5 percent threshold was seen as the end of an era in Russian party politics. The "historic mission" of the liberal parties in Russia was now over, proclaimed Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov.2

Yabloko's failure in the 2003 Duma election did not reflect a sudden rejection of the party's social-liberal agenda by the Russian electorate. The party's share of the vote had been in constant decline since the first post-Soviet parliamentary election in 1993.3 Nevertheless, despite its relatively low level of support over ten years, Yabloko is a wellestablished political party. The party's leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, who worked with both Gorbachev and Yeltsin and stood for the presidency in 1996 and 2000, enjoys a high profile both in Russia and the West. As an overtly democratic, liberal reformist party with a strong pro-Western orientation, the fact that Yabloko has become a marginal force in Russian politics should be of concern to those in Russia and the West who are interested both in the establishment of democratic norms and the relative strength of political forces promoting democratic and market reforms in Russia.

The lack of an effective opposition in Russia after 2003 has serious implications for democratic development. In his seminal work on opposition, Dahl describes the system of managing political conflicts in a society by allowing opposition parties to compete with governing parties as "one of the greatest and most unexpected social discoveries that man has ever stumbled onto." The normative relevance of opposition parties is clear for Dahl, who sees their existence as "very nearly the most distinctive characteristic of democracy itself" and their absence as "evidence, if not conclusive proof, for the absence of democracy." 4 Without effective opposition parties there can be no real prospect for the alternation of power, a key requirement of a functioning democracy. The reality in Russia, however, is that opposition parties have increasingly found themselves frozen out of the political process, starved of access to the media, and competing against pro-presidential parties able to tap into massive administrative resources.

Two common factors united the three parties that fared the worst in 2003. Each can be broadly seen as being in opposition to Putin's regime and each can be characterized as "programmatic" parties.5 The electoral decline of such parties and the dominance of deideologized "catchall" parties whose agendas do not go far beyond providing support for the president have been key features of party politics in Russia since 1999.

Although this article uses the framework of "managed democracy" to explain the electoral decline of the Yabloko party, other important factors have contributed to its downward trend as well. …

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