Unify or die – the stark choice facing Russia’s liberals
Yabloko and SPS performed so poorly in the recent Duma elections that both are in danger of extinction.
Yabloko garnered just 1.59% of the popular vote in December’s Duma elections and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) received a mere 0.94%, which effectively renders both parties as non-entities on the national political scene. Not only did they both fail to gain the 7% of votes needed to secure a place in the Duma, they failed to even reach the 3% required to qualify for free airtime in the run-up to the election. As a result, they’ll have to pay for the airtime they used – approximately $8 million apiece.
As a result, both parties are heavily in debt. No-one in Yabloko HQ will reveal the exact figures, but senior Yabloko member Alexei Melnikov has indicated that the party’s debt currently stands at 5 times its current annual budget of $1.8 million. SPS meanwhile are reported to be more than $8 million in debt.
Of the two, perhaps SPS is in the stronger position to come out fighting – their links to Russian business will be a great help when it comes to fund-raising – but the future looks bleak for both parties, and I wonder how they can possibly survive another electoral beating of this magnitude.
Internal party politics
Both parties are clearly agonising over their defeats, but it is far from clear that anything much will actually change.
Nikita Belykh had the good grace to resign as leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS). He cited the party’s poor performance at the polls – SPS gained just 0.94% of the vote – and his own strategic blunder of not taking a tough stance against the Kremlin until it was too late.
Unfortunately, perhaps, for the concept of personal accountability, he was re-elected at the SPS Party Congress yesterday.
The Party Congress also decided to nominate the party’s co-founder Boris Nemtsov as their candidate for the upcoming Presidential election, demonstrating pretty conclusively that not much is actually going to change at the top for the next few months at least.
At Yabloko, meanwhile, things look more interesting – even if not particularly sensible. Rumours are circulating that Grigory Yavlinsky their long-time leader, may be facing a challenge.
Underlining this was the party’s decision to back Vladimir Bukovsky as their Presidential candidate. Although perhaps positive in that it shows some diversity, I can’t help but think that a party that chooses a man who lives in London as its Presidential candidate is on the fast track to political self destruction.
Unification – the only option left?
There has been plenty of talk in the past few years about a merger between Yabloko and SPS, to shore up their decaying futures. But, for the most part, such talk has been of the hopeful pie in the sky variety.
There are some proud personalities involved in Russia’s liberal politics, and everyone fears that they would lose their own identity in a merger. Even today, Boris Nemtsov of SPS is completely opposed to the idea of a merger with Yabloko:
“Unification on the basis of Yabloko is no unification at all,” Nemtsov said, dismissing the prospect of joining up with the party as “complete nonsense.”
If he, and Yabloko, want to carry on along their current path, well, that’s fine I suppose. But they should walk in the full knowledge that the path they are on heads straight to the nearest cemetery.
If Russia’s liberals want to have an impact on national politics, they absolutely have to muster enough votes to get into the Duma. Neither SPS nor Yabloko, as has been demonstrated clearly this December, have a cat in hell’s chance of doing it alone.
Leonty Byzov, head of the analytical section of state polling agency VTsIOM, along with other analysts, estimates that around 10-12% of Russia’s voters are ‘liberal,’ so there’s a pretty sizeable chunk of the electorate out there up for grabs – certainly enough to get a liberal party into the Duma.
If Yabloko and SPS, and the other smaller liberal parties can’t find it within themselves to gather up their courage and merge into one united liberal party, they will never pull in enough votes to cover their operating costs, let alone become nationally significant.
For Yabloko or SPS, it really is time to unify or die.