May 15, 2007

Russia : How to Become an MP

By Igor Yefimov The Moscow News
Russia's political parties are gearing up for parliamentary elections according to new game rules

This year, political parties don't intend to sell deputies' mandates, as they have done in the past. The value of a State Duma seat is no longer measured in cash. It's not rubles, dollars or even euros that are now the principal "currency" of Russian politics, but the number of votes that a name can bring.

Following a comprehensive reform of electoral law conducted by the Russian authorities (citing the need to fight extremism), access to the State Duma has been considerably limited. Consider the cessation of elections in constituencies (a normal way for opposition politicians to win seats), a ban on the formation of electoral blocs, and the raising of the threshold for parties to get into the State Duma. Furthermore, today entire regions of Russia component may be left without their own representative in the lower house of parliament.

Nevertheless, an MP's position is still highly attractive. Throughout his term in office, a deputy is immune from prosecution. He may not be detained, arrested, searched or questioned without consent from the legislature. He has an expense account and other perks, is exempt from military service, entitlement to an apartment in Moscow, and a good salary. An MP is also invited to the Kremlin to listen to the president's annual state of the nation address. So citizens of high integrity are already lining up to get on the lists of Russia's mainstream political parties.

But it looks like the legislature will soon become off limits to non-partisan politicians. Only a party career will open the way to parliament. Neither money nor athletic success can any longer guarantee an MP's mandate.

"Being an MP is not a profession; it's a form of political activity," says Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Duma deputy speaker and leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. "If you decide to become an MP, you need to adopt an ideological position and then define your political orientation, your political identity - democrat, liberal, leftist or rightist. Then join your party's primary organization, work there for a while, get elected as a party leader on the district level, then move on to the regional level. You need to get into the spotlight. When you do, then it's time to run for a local self-governing body. Becoming an MP must not be a goal. A person can become a pilot or a doctor - those are real professions."

Citing his personal experience, the LDPR leader said: "I first ran exactly 20 years ago, in May 1987, when the first democratic election was held. I was 41 years old and ready to engage in political activity. I started at the district level - the Dzerzhinsk District Council, since I was working in that district for Mir Publishers. I nominated myself at a staff meeting, and everyone supported my candidacy. That was my first victory. I used the right to self-nomination, granted by Mikhail Gorbachev, and I was endorsed. I did the right thing. Another candidate was put forward by the local party committee, but I won. Two years later I headed up a political party, and was then nominated to run for president. Everything was done in a methodical, systematic, consistent way, starting with the first step that I took when, 40 years ago, as a university student, I wrote a letter to the supreme bodies of state power in the Soviet Union. To become an MP, you first must work on the grassroots level for 20 years."

Pro-presidential United Russia (UR) was the first party to issue guidelines for future State Duma deputies. Valery Ryazansky, deputy secretary of the UR General Council Presidium and deputy head of the UR faction in the lower house, said that this coming summer the party will assess the results of the primaries, which will then be used as a basis for drawing up its voting lists. Ryazansky advised those seeking election to turn to the party's local or regional branches and start working actively in the party's interests.

"It's never too late for anybody. A local organization will explain what needs to be done to become an MP," he said.

Yet he also said that not only party members may seek a deputy's mandate. UR signed agreements with some public organizations that may also nominate their Duma candidates on UR lists. He said the party would like public organizations "to put forward public opinion leaders."

The "bears" also have some experience in getting such candidates elected to regional legislatures. (In late 2005, United Russia approved the polar bear as its new symbol, replacing the former brown bear; its new symbol is the Russian national flag against a blue background with a polar bear under the flag and the name of the party. - Ed.). According to Ryazansky, in the March 11th elections, 34 of 93 candidates put forward by public organizations were elected.

"We are expanding the public support base," the deputy head of the UR faction said, adding that the party's assistance will be selective. He said party lists will be drawn up in alphabetical order, but the party will decide which politicians on its list will get Duma seats.

Oleg Morozov, first deputy head of the UR faction and first deputy speaker of the State Duma, confirmed that regional lists are a priority. This is necessary not only to consolidate the party's positions across the country but also to "take care of the voters." Now that direct elections of Duma lawmakers from individual electoral districts have been done away with, and as the 450-seat house is to be filled through voting on party lists, a voter is not guaranteed representation in the State Duma even if a party wins 7 percent of the vote in his region.

According to Morozov, UR has yet to decide what to do with representatives from sparsely populated areas, at risk of falling by the wayside. He said that if a small area is merged with a larger one, the majority of voters will have no incentive to vote for "outsiders." "They will want to see their representatives on the list, while their electoral capacity is immeasurably greater."

Morozov also said his party favors a different plan. The electorate in individual Russian regions may be encouraged to secure a mandate for their candidate by turning out in large numbers and casting their ballots. "If, for example, say one half of the electorate in Khakassia [Siberia] with a high turnout vote for a UR list, they will most likely get the mandate. Party members should really fight for this only seat. It is a big incentive."

LDPR is seriously concerned by the upcoming (December) poll and the appearance of such a formidable rival as A Just Russia. "An effort is needed to obtain a seat in the Duma. To become an MP, one has to start with a primary party organization," Zhirinovsky said. "One has to start with the ABCs," he told this reporter. "Today, everyone wants to be an MP. But one needs to be a lawyer first and foremost. Lawmaking is a central parliamentary activity. Can you write laws? Can you read them? Do you understanding what this is all about?"

Zhirinovsky believes that the recent amendments in the electoral law do not bar citizens from being elected to the State Duma. "I have always favored a proportional representation system. What is an independent MP, a deputy going it alone? This is impossible. Even wolves form a pack. Workmen form a team to build a house. One person is unable to do anything on his own. Party activity is where it all starts. Only parties should elect MPs," he said.

Like Ryazansky, he is convinced that it is easier for a party to win an election if it has prominent, high profile names on its list. "We will have 100 regional party lists, 300 candidates, with a worthy person at the top of each list. S/He will have a better chance if s/he is well known. And s/he will be a more effective deputy if s/he lives and works in an area from which s/he is elected, and is familiar with everything in this area. Only the first three names on any party's list will win. And it is quite possible that only one party will win. Such a thing has never happened before."


At one time it was widely believed that getting into the Duma was only a question of money. Duma veterans recall that the position of deputy speaker in the Second State Duma cost $2 million. In the 1999 election, the price tag rose to $5 million.

Money still matters. For example, a politician can quite legally become a "public opinion leader" if s/he shells out for an effective PR campaign. But the majority of politicians underline that not even public opinion leaders are insured against defeat in the primaries or the loss of place on an election list. In this situation, a seat in parliament is more precious than money. There are quite a few affluent persons among the MPs today, but their names ring no bells to the average voter. Any party takes a serious risk by using their names to fill vacancies on "alphabetical" lists. Therefore, the widespread practice of trading in mandates is becoming a thing of the past.

"If a person is really bright and dynamic, s/he will be tapped by one party or another," Oleg Morozov told this reporter. "The overwhelming majority of political parties, especially new, younger ones, have a shortage of proactive, energetic members. I will reveal a secret: not so long ago I met with the leader of a very large political party, and we spoke about one Russian region. He asked me if I knew of some reliable person who was not a UR member but who held similar views - someone they could place at the top of their regional list. This aptly sums up the situation, I think."

It needs to be added here that Morozov sponsored an amendment that, in his opinion, effectively closed access to the State Duma in exchange for a bagful of cash. Today, by law, the election list of any party is divided into 80 to 155 parts (according to the number of regions). According to Oleg Morozov, this means that on the overwhelming majority of regional party lists, only the top three names have a chance for success.

"In the past it was as long as a freight train, which had a huge potential for corruption as 'money bags' were slipped into some inconspicuous position: The voter only saw the top three names and did not know who was, say, in the 17th position. Today there are no more such lists, except perhaps for Moscow and the surrounding area. However, a different problem arises here since there is already very strong competition among well known politicians and MPs. Including a person on the list just because s/he has money is rather problematic now. That would be too conspicuous, almost to the point of indecency."

The majority of UR's regional lists will be short and transparent, the first deputy speaker continued. "This means that if you put a person at the top of a list only because he (she) has money, you risk losing points, losing votes. After all, it is some obscure, unknown person, s/he may not win, which would work against a party. This setup is not in a party's interests - it will only lose its share of the vote."


The same applies to popular artists and athletes. It is unlikely that the Fifth Duma will become a refuge for Russian Olympic champions or pop stars. Nevertheless, the house's "star value" will grow. Here is how it will work. Only a super-popular figure can be placed at the top of a regional list.

"There will still be athletes and artists - not, however, just as 'a lure,' but as people who will really fight for the seats, who will really want to become MPs, and who will bring the party extra points," Morozov is convinced.

His opinion is shared by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. "Moneybags is definitely bad. We must cleanse elections of all fat cats. Only party activists should be on the lists - people with a proven track record and long time residents in a region in which they are nominated. I intend to propose that only a person who has been a party member for at least 10 years and is native to a particular region may be registered as a candidate for the State Duma. Then there will no moneybags or governors or artists or athletes - only party members."

But even he doubts that no mandates will be bought in the Fifth Duma. According to Zhirinovsky, the recent amendments do not bar "fat cats" from election lists. "It is still possible to include just about anyone on a party list, even people who are not party members. The only restriction that applies today is that a member of one party may not be on the list of another party. But there is a loophole: a person who is not a party member may be included on the list. This loophole should have been closed. A party list must be clean. It should be checked by the Prosecutor's Office, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service to ensure that candidates have no criminal record or business interests. Then the deputy corps will be impervious to any influence. Otherwise there will be many vested interests, people who are only after parliamentary immunity."

The Moscow News

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