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