#Analysis
May 1st, 2009. LDPR Rally. Photo by Photobank Moscow-Live / flickr

Main Russian Political Parties: Mode of Operations and Regional Support Base

Part 3: LDPR

Author: Alexander Kynev

Introduction

The nomination of candidates for the 2021 State Duma election has ended. The parties have filed their lists with the Central Electoral Commission. Like in 2016, there will most likely be 14 parties on the ballot. In total, 15 lists have been nominated; however, one of the parties (The Russian All-People Union) has no registration privilege1, which means it needs to collect signatures in order to register for the election, something it is not likely to accomplish.

Parties that will overcome the 5-percent barrier are to get mandates. According to sociologists, these will probably be the same four parties represented in the parliament now: United Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia (which has incorporated two minor parties, Za Pravdu/For Truth and Patriots of Russia). Theoretically, Novye Lyudi (New People) can become the fifth, based on the outcome of regional elections in September 2020. The number of parliamentary parties in Russia remains the same since 2003 (Just Russia is a legal successor of Rodina/Homeland bloc in the 2003 election).

As Russia is the biggest country in the world by area, its regions are very different from each other politically. Ability to utilise the interests of some geographic areas has largely predetermined the success of parties in federal elections. Famous is the 'red belt' myth of the 1990s, covering primarily agricultural regions of Central Russia's south and southern Siberia, which used to stand out as the stronghold of CPRF. It is also well known that United Russia is the most successful in electorally manageable2 minority regions of Northern Caucasus and Volga Region frequently referred to as 'electoral sultanates.'

How are these four mainstream parties organised? What is their support base in regions?

The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia

Despite its formal anti-systemic nature, traditionally declared in the party’s slogans, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) is a die-hard systemic electoral veteran, successfully cohabitating with all presidents of Russia. Formally, this is the country’s oldest party. While declaring itself as a political successor of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) was established during a congress on 13-14 February 1993, and legally has nothing in common with the abovementioned organizations. LDPR, on the other hand, first emerged under the brand of the Liberal Democratic Party of the Soviet Union (LDPSU) and was surprisingly quickly registered as early as 1990 (founded on 13 December 1989); it became the second and the last All-Union party registered in the USSR after the CPSU, a symptomatic and symbolic achievement in itself. The LDPSU’s 3rd congress on 18-19 April 1992 transformed it into LDPR. Born on 25 April 1946, Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky is the party's permanent leader. He is a full-fledged member of the Order of Merit to the Fatherland of 4th degree (20 April 2006), 3rd degree (8 May 2011), 2nd degree (18 April 2016), and 1st degree (25 April 2021), granted, respectively, to his anniversaries of 60, 65, 70, and 75 years.

Zhirinovsky's son, Igor Vladimirovich Lebedev (born 1972), is a member of the State Duma of Russia since 1999. He was the head of the LDPR group in the State Duma between 18 January 2000 and 21 December 2011 and has been the deputy chairperson of the State Duma since 21 December 2011, something probably making him the LDPR's second person by status.

Party’s 2021 electoral prospects

It is both easy and difficult to speak about the electoral prospects of LDPR. On the one hand, the party has sustainable historical and geographical support. With its well-developed regional network and time-proven system for personnel recruiting and training, it is also traditionally in favour with the authorities when running campaigns.  

On the other hand, while there are no doubts that LDPR will make it to the State Duma, considerable concerns exist that the federal campaign 2021 might appear as its last successful federal campaign in its current shape:

  • The party leader is aging. History shows that one-man parties with vague ideologies rarely outlast their creators. Zhirinovsky is turning 80 in 2026. Unsurprisingly, rumors are in the air about a leader change, while Lebedev, the party's multiannual factual manager and formally its second-in-command, is not on the LDPR list to the State Duma 2021;
  • The uncertainty about the future cannot but demotivate the grassroots activists;
  • Some regional branches do have leaders with the political authority of their own; however, they could hardly keep the whole project afloat in the absence of an outstanding federal charismatic personality;
  • The electoral history testifies that LDPR would always lose votes whenever new appealing leaders and party lists were on the ballot. The more active the new projects in the 2021 electoral campaign, the worse the outcome is likely for LDPR.

 LDPR as a symbol of electoral ‘ill-being’

As a typical one-man party with an eclectic platform, LDPR has been successful by appealing to the personality of its leader. Most other MPs are usually poorly known, and very few party candidates have ever won in single-seat districts. Historically, the party's regional leaders have played insignificant roles in electoral campaigns, with their importance only recently growing as Zhirinovsky's personal involvement in campaigns decreased. The party won five one-seat districts in 1993, its most successful year (22.92% and 59 seats via lists, the most popular list); only one single-seat district in 1995 (11.18% and 50 seats via lists), and not a single district in 1999 (5.98% and 17 seats via lists) and 2003 (11.45% and 36 seats via lists). LDPR State Duma group increased in 2007 and 2011 due to the shift towards a fully proportionate system. LDPR won 8.14% and 40 seats in 2007, and 11.67% and 56 seats in 2011. With the reintroduction of the mixed system in 2016, the party celebrated victory in five districts cleaned up for it by the government, one of them won by now-famous Sergey Furgal, in addition to 13.14% of votes and 34 seats won via lists.

Since long ago, LDPR voting has turned into a kind of a symbol for electoral ill-being. The more unhappy voters are with their living circumstances, and the more dispiriting and discouraging the assortment of parties and candidates offered for an election looks, the more votes go to LDPR.

The most successful year for the party, 1993, was the year of the conflict between the President and the Supreme Council, violent dispersion of the parliament, and extraordinary election. In contrast, LDPR seemed to be 'the third force.' Simply put, voters choose the scandalous party when they lose illusions about everyone, this same party included, when they dislike everyone, see no positive options, and just want to protest. The message from the voters is: "If you treat us this way, we give tit for tat, so have your way with it." Whenever new parties or candidates emerge that give voters at least some hope, the LDPR vote share almost always decreases.

Amidst new large-scale projects joining the race in 1999 (The Union of Right Forces, Otechestvo – Whole Russia, etc.), and registration-related troubles, the LDPR list hardly made it into the State Duma with just 5.98% votes. Their faction reduced to 17 members; so far, this is the party's worst performance in all federal elections ever. The party-list was denied registration because of problems with financial declarations of the list leaders, including personally Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As a result, Zhirinovsky Bloc was urgently established to substitute LDPR. In 2003, on the background of the government's powerful counterpropaganda against CPRF and simultaneous unwinding of the patriotic and anti-oligarch campaign, CPRF's share decreased, while shares of LDPR (up to 11.45%) and new bloc Rodina/Homeland increased. Just Russia appeared in 2007, bringing LDPR down to 8.14% again. With the number of parties reaching its lowest in 2011, the LDPR result rises almost back to the 2003 level (11.67%). In 2016, an extraordinarily dull and electorally inert year, marked by behind-the-scenes agreements on the allocation of districts among parties and essentially no strong public polemics, the party's share went up to 13.14%.

With results staying at the level of 2016 on average, the party has been enjoying quite positive dynamics in recent years. In addition, the party's image has never created inflated expectations in urban pro-democratic voters. Simply put, it could not produce major disappointments since no one had major illusions about it. However, new emerging projects bring significant image-related risks for LDPR. While the party is in a deficit of new eye-catching campaign issues, the party's permanent leader Zhirinovsky is losing some of his boldness.

Regional support

Since the establishment, the party would usually be the most successful in regions of the Far East, Siberia, Ural, and the Far North, where protest voting was inherently non-communist. On the contrary, the party would have the worst appeal in minority regions; e.g., the party did not even nominate its list during the most recent election to the parliament of the Chechen Republic. It comes as no surprise, given the party's proposals to abolish such regions. Occasional upsurges of LDPR performance in some regions usually occur as an exception, due to either ad hoc administrative support (e.g. in Volkov-run Udmurtia) or a well-organized and generously funded one-off electoral campaign. However, the outcomes would come back to where they were at the next elections once the administrative and/or financial backing is gone.

Regional LDPR branches in some regions might occasionally harbour the local opposition; such experiences are rare, though, and have proven not always to be a good idea for candidates. For instance, the party recalled its candidate to the State Duma Sergey Katasonov in 2014 in Orenburg Oblast; Katasonov (interestingly, a former member of the United Russia) was seen as the single opposition candidate for the governor.

De facto, LDPR is a traditionally important partner of the 'power party' in the State Duma. Suffice it to recall that Zhirinovsky called on his supporters in 1996 not to vote for Zyuganov and not to vote 'against all,' which meant, in fact, to either support Yeltsin or not show up. Despite its statements, it voted for appointing Kirienko as the Prime Minister in 1998. In autumn 1998, LDPR voted against approving Yevgeny Primakov as the new Prime Minister; however, the representative of LDPR Sergey Kalashnikov was later included in Primakov's government as the Minister of Labour (he remained in this position in Sergey Stepashin government put in place in May 1999, and eventually in Vladimir Putin government). As LDPR advocated against Yeltsin's impeachment in spring 1999, its group's members did not touch ballot sheets on 12 May 1999 while voting on charges. When Stepashin resigned in August 1999, 47 LDPR MPs voted for a new Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, while three did not vote. In 2020, they avoided backing protests in Khabarovsk in support of the arrested governor Furgal.

At the federal level, LDPR almost closed its gap on CPRF in the 2016 race and finished second in 39 regions. With other actors sticking to their inertial campaigns, the party was quite visible thanks to the peculiarities of its image and relatively young pool of candidates. Contrary to CPRF and Just Russia, it was neither a target nor an actor of any negative campaigns in most regions. Enjoying a rather tolerant attitude of mainstream media, LDPR stayed away from information wars and opted for a balanced participation in electoral debates.

The party’s shares improved in all regions but 14, compared to 2011. The Komi Republic, Zabaikalsky Krai, and oblasts of Amur, Vladimir, Vologda, Kirov, and Orenburg, reported the largest gains in LDPR votes; the situation in Mordovia improved (the overall percentage in the region still staying low).

Back in 2011, the party's main supporters were Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District, Amur Oblast, and Khabarovsky, Zabaikalsky, and Primorsky Krais. In 2016, Amur Oblast ranked the best (with the party winning 29%, just about 8% below United Russia), followed by Zabaikalsky Krai and Khabarovsky Krai, and oblasts of Kirov and Orenburg. Notably, in three out of these five regions, LDPR's Abramov, Kuliyeva, and Furgal ran as favourites to the State Duma in majoritarian districts freed of the United Russia candidates. At the same time, LDPR's Katasonov claimed the role of the opposition's single candidate in Orenburg Oblast in 2014 before being revoked by his own party due to his brush with the law, which he denied.

Party’s organizational structure

In contrast to other parties, LDPR is organized as a rigid hierarchy; regional branches de facto have even less freedom than enshrined in the party charter in choosing their own leadership, effectively appointed by the party bosses, rendering the local approval a mere formality. In a typical case scenario, the party rotates regional leadership very frequently, appointing young coordinators aged 25 to 40 who rarely stay longer than one or two tenures of two years; in many cases, they are removed even faster. Currently, the oldest coordinators are Gadiyev in Ingushetia (born in 1960), Morozov in Tambov Oblast (1962), Bulatov in Tver Oblast (1964), Pikhterev in Crimea (1964), Vyshkvarok in Kalmykia (1965), and Postnikov in Perm Krai (1965). The youngest coordinators are Shishmarev in Buryatia (1995), Kanevsky in Voronezh Oblast (1997), Lozenko in Kaluga Oblast (1995), and Monakhov in Moscow (1995).

Notably, almost all LDPR deputies and regional coordinators are traditionally men. The only woman coordinator now is Albina Futullayeva in the Chechen Republic.

This rapid rotation indeed enables LDPR to offer ambitious young people fast-track social lifts; yet, the track is both fast and short. The party grassroots management thus is always energetic and hungry for victories. If a coordinator is lucky, he (rarely she) moves to the status of a regional or local council member via the LDPR list; only those acknowledged by the party's top leadership stand a chance of advancing to the State Duma. Importantly, rather than in all regions, such 'open calls' are only available where the party has no reliable political partner among local businesses or political elites. Where such heavyweight sponsors are in place (e.g., Voronezh Oblast, Ryazan Oblast, Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District, Krasnodar Krai, etc.), formally or informally, they are de facto in charge of the branch, while the formal coordinator plays a mere managerial role.

It is also common for the party to delegate outsiders from the central apparatus or other regional branches as temporary coordinators.

Previously and now, the party’s strongest regional branches in possession of leaders with their own political status and authority, and capable of winning elections even without using the personal image of Zhirinovsky, are mostly situated in Siberia and the North: in Krasnoyarsk Krai, oblasts of Amur, Arkhangelsk, Vologda, Kirov, Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Ryazan, and Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District; Crimea and Mari El also have strong functional branches.

Rumoured federal leadership changes

As the election is coming, rumours have been circulating for months about a possible change in the LDPR federal leadership, influencing the climate in regional branches.

For example, a key figure in one of the strongest LDPR regional branches, Krasnoyarsk Krai, a deputy speaker of the regional legislature Alexey Kulesh left the LDPR group and the party in the run-up to the 19 September 2021 legislature election after 17 years of membership, to join United Russia's primaries without joining the party. LDPR is also losing high-profile members in Altai Krai. Two single-district members of Rubtsovsk Town Council, Vladimir Ovchinnikov and Vladimir Bachurin left the LDPR group on 17 June 2021 and moved to the United Russia group. While the first one was the chairperson of the 'liberal-democratic group, the second one holds the position of the town council's vice speaker. Ilya Lisnyak from Perm Youth Centre is a young entrepreneur in Perm with media resources and social media and a member of Perm City Duma elected via the LDPR list. Lesniak and a group of his supporters announced in spring 2021 that "while the recent year's party initiatives never became close to our hearts, it makes no sense to remain in the party 'mechanically'." The conflict spiralled into the regional branch rejecting their membership cancellations letters, and the case came to trial. The court obliged the regional branich to pass a decision on expelling them from the party.

 

References:

1 To nominate their candidates for the State Duma elections without collecting signatures, a party needs to take part in the distribution of mandates following the results of previous parliamentary elections or have a representative in the legislative assembly of at least one of the regions - REM

2 Several minority regions of the Northern Caucasus and Volga Region, characterized by highly authoritarian regional political regimes, tend to massively vote in favor of the ruling party – although independent electoral experts and the opposition claim rampant election fraud.

3 The formation of the Russian intra-elite consensus about the illegal annexation of the Crimea and Sevastopol - REM

4 Candidates or parties with similar ideologies whose appearance would lead to the splitting of votes of the electoral base - REM

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PART 4: JUST RUSSIA-PATRIOTS-FOR TRUTH

According to sociologists, the same four parties represented in the parliament now: United Russia, the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia will probably be elected again in 2021. How are these four parties organized? What is their support base in regions?

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PART 3: LDPR

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PART 2: CPRF

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PART 1: United Russia

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#Commentary

The President of Russia approved the law prohibiting those who are "involved" in the activities of an extremist organization from running in elections.

Electoral headquarters of Alexey Navalny. Photo - Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

On June 9, the Moscow City Court, based on the charges by the Moscow Prosecutor's Office, recognized the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Foundation for the Protection of Citizens' Rights, and the headquarters of Alexei Navalny as extremist organizations. Now, many citizens are under a threat of pressure and persecution.

Vladimir Putin at the United Russia Congress (2011-11-27). Image - Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

Between May 24 and 30, United Russia held its preliminary selection of candidates for 2021 State Duma elections. Nearly 12 million citizens participated in the party's primaries. Yet, a more careful examination shows an increasingly controlled and non-transparent process, aimed at having the public formally 'endorse' a carefully vetted list of pre-selected candidates.

Meeting of Central Election Commission Chair Ella Pamfilova with OSCE / ODIHR Director Matteo Mecacci. Photo - CEC
#Report

Between 2003 and 2018, OSCE/ODIHR published 139 recommendations on how to improve the conduct of elections in Russia. In the run-up to the State Duma elections in 2021, Russia has fully implemented just over 10% of them. Some have been tackled more promptly than others.

Man using computers. Photo by: Lisa Fotios from Pexels
#Analysis

Ahead of the State Duma election on September 19, 2021, Russia just tested its remote electronic voting system. While the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation (CEC) is preparing the report about the results of the test, election monitors say Russia's electronic voting system is a black box.

Alexei Navalny. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
#Analysis

The Russian authorities are expected to orchestrate a result in the upcoming State Duma elections that will give United Russia a clear majority of seats. This does not mean, however, that the manipulation of the electoral process by the authorities is complete. In a limited number of competitive districts, true opposition candidates including candidates who are associated with Aleksei Navalny have a real chance of winning if they are allowed to run. In recent weeks, steps have been taken to block these 'undesirable' candidates from participating.

Central Election Commission (CEC) of Russian Federation during April 21, 2021, meeting. Photo by: CEC.
#Commentary

On March 19, 2021, the new composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the Russian Federation was revealed. Out of 15 members, eight new people joined the CEC. In particular, the new Commission has been 'reinforced' by bureaucrats from the Presidential Administration, the State Duma, and the Civic Chamber (a consultative civil society institution closely linked to the government).