Political Party System

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Following years of one-party politics in the Soviet Union, post-communist Russia experienced a burst of party development during the 1990s. Still, Russia's party system remains underdeveloped. Although political parties run candidates in national parliamentary elections, Russia's first two presidents, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, chose not to affiliate themselves with political parties. Russia's constitution gives the president the power to form the government without reference to the balance of party strength in the parliament. Politicians in the State Duma usually affiliate themselves with parties or party-like factions, but almost no parties have well-developed organizational bases among the electorate. Most voters have only dim conceptions of the policy positions of the major political parties. New parties constantly form and dissolve. The function often ascribed to political parties in developed democraciesthat of linking voters' interests with the policy decisions of government is scarcely visible in Russia. Nonetheless, a rudimentary party system was in place by the late 1990s.

Russia's parties may be characterized as falling into five major types. On the left are Marxist-Leninist parties. The most prominent example is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, headed by Gennady Zyuganov. The CPRF is characterized by a militantly anti-capitalist stance, which it combines with appeals to Russian statist, nationalist, and religious traditions. It is the strongest political party in Russia both in its membership and in the number of votes it attracts in elections (it can count on the support of about 20 to 25 percent of the electorate). It also enjoys a distinct ideological identity in voters' minds. Despite its large following, however, it has been unable to exercise much influence in policy making at the national level. Other parties on the left are still more radical in their ideologies and call for a return to Soviet-era political and economic institutions; some expressly advocate a return to Stalinism.

A second group of parties can be called "social democratic." They accept the principle of private ownership of property. At the same time, they call for a more interventionist social policy by the government to protect social groups made vulnerable by the transition from communism. The party headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, called Yabloko, is an example. Yabloko attracts 7 to 10 percent of the vote in national elections. Other parties that identify themselves as social democraticincluding a party organized by former president Mikhail Gorbachevhave fared poorly in elections.

A third group of parties strongly advocate market-oriented policies. They press for further privatization of state assets, including land and industrial enterprises. They also seek closer integration of Russia with the West and the spread of values such as respect for individual civil, political, and economic liberties. The most prominent example of such a party is the Union of Rightist Forces, which drew around 8 percent of the vote in the 2000 parliamentary election.

A fourth group of parties appeal to voters on nationalist grounds. Some call for giving ethnic Russians priority treatment in Russia over ethnic minorities. Others demand the restoration of a Russian empire. They denounce Western influences such as individualism, materialism, and competitiveness. Some believe that Russia's destiny lies with a Eurasian identity that straddles East and West; others take a more straightforwardly statist bent and call for restoring Russian military might and centralized state power. Nationalist groups are numerous and skillful at attracting attention, but tend to be small. However, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia gained some successes in elections during the 1990s (22% in 1993, 12% in 1995).

The fifth group may be called "parties of power." These are parties that actively avoid taking explicit programmatic stances. They depend instead on their access to state power and the provision of patronage benefits to elite supporters. Their public stance tends to be centrist, pragmatic, and reassuring. The major party of power in the 2000 election was "Unity," which benefited from an arms-length association with Vladimir Putin. The problem for parties of power is that they have little to offer voters except their proximity to the Kremlin; if their patrons reject them or lose power, they quickly fade from view.

Many voters can identify a party that they prefer over others, but Russian voters on the whole mistrust parties and feel little sense of attachment to them. Likewise most politicians, apart from Communists, feel little loyalty or obligation to parties. The conditions favoring the development of a party systema network of civic and social associations able to mobilize support behind one or another party, and a political system in which the government is based on a party majority in parliamentremain weak in Russia. It is likely that the development of a strong, competitive party system will be a protracted process.

See also: communist party of the russian federation; liberal democratic party; union of right forces; yabloko.


Colton, Timothy J. (2000). Transitional Citizens: Voters and What Influences Them in the New Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fish, M. Stephen. (1996). Democracy from Scratch: Opposition and Regime in the New Russian Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McFaul, Michael. (2001). Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

White, Stephen; Rose, Richard; and McAllister, Ian. (1996). How Russia Votes. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers.

Thomas F. Remington

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Political Party System

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