Lessons Learned for the Presidential Vote

What's the best way to win votes?

1. Leave most of the campaigning to a popular president;

2. Warn voters of unspecified enemies who dream of revenge and want to humiliate the country;

3. Manipulate television coverage; or

4. All of the above.

When it comes to the lessons the Kremlin has learned from the recent State Duma elections, the correct answer is "all of the above," political analysts said.

These tactics played a major role in United Russia's landslide victory on Sunday, and Kremlin strategists are likely to apply them to the next election as well -- the March vote for a successor to President Vladimir Putin, the analysts said.

"Just as United Russia went overboard to identify itself with Putin, everything possible will be done to identify Putin's preferred successor with the president," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

During the Duma campaign, Putin repeatedly called on voters to support United Russia, saying a vote for the party was a vote for the continuation of his policies. United Russia treated the vote as a referendum on Putin, rather than its record.

A United Russia official said the single most influential event during the campaign was a Nov. 21 rally in the Luzhniki arena, where Putin warned hundreds of cheering supporters to watch out for Russia's enemies.

"This was a spectacular event that helped mobilize the president's supporters around the country, and it fits the pattern of electoral campaigns in many democratic countries, including the United States," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

State television showed 16 minutes of his 25-minute speech during their news broadcasts.

The United Russia official also mentioned demonstrations initiated by the pro-Putin youth groups Nashi and Young Guard as being important to the party's victory. "They bore fruit, especially as far as voter turnout was concerned. They gave a clear signal to the youth and had a positive effect on the elderly," he said.

Those events, however, were not organized by United Russia, which is often seen as a party of servile bureaucrats and proved to be ineffective on the campaign trail, analysts said. The presidential administration has scolded United Russia officials for their clumsy efforts to get out the vote, Kommersant and Vedomosti reported last month, citing unidentified government officials.

"Putin's decision to campaign himself was a signal of the Kremlin's utter frustration with United Russia's abilities," said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information.

As such, the Kremlin is likely to limit its involvement in the presidential campaign, he said.

United Russia is expected to name its presidential candidate at a convention later this month. Afterward, voters will probably see blanket coverage of him at Putin's side on television as the president praises the country's economic growth and re-emergence as a global power, said Yevgeny Minchenko, an analyst with the International Institute of Political Expertise.

Kremlin strategists planning the presidential campaign are well aware that voters respect personalities, not parties, said Leonid Sedov, a sociologist with the Levada Center.

Putin's rhetoric during the Duma campaign was rich with references to the "oligarchic forces" from the wild capitalism of the 1990 who dream of a revanche. This was a thinly veiled attack on the liberal opposition parties whose leaders enjoyed prominence under President Boris Yeltsin. During his Luzhniki speech, Putin accused Western governments of backing "destructive forces" at home that "scavenge like jackals for money at the foreign embassies."

Ahead of the presidential election, the Kremlin is expected to paint an even more vivid picture of Russia being a besieged fortress with a perfidious enemy within its gates. "During the Duma campaign, this picture was used to convince potential voters that stability was not set in stone and things might easily change for the worse without his or her personal input," Makarkin said.

The tactic appeared to play well, given the higher-than-usual turnout of voters on Sunday, he said.

The campaign was the slickest yet in post-Soviet history -- "a thoroughly calculated, step-by-step mechanical process where the form had very little to do with the substance," said Fyodor Lukyanov, a political analyst and editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

Kremlin strategists relied on a ploy -- honed during the 1996 presidential election -- of rallying the people against a common enemy to maximize turnout and Putin's legitimacy, Lukyanov said. In 1996, Yeltsin called on voters to back him or face a return to communism.

United Russia received so much airtime, despite electoral laws about equal coverage, because the party and Putin were treated as newsmakers, not campaigners. Asked by journalists on the eve of the elections about why Putin's campaigning for United Russia had received overwhelming news coverage, Central Elections Commission chief Vladimir Churov said, "A candidate on a party's federal ticket has the right to campaign for the party."

Churov, a former classmate of Putin's, replaced an outspoken elections commission chief earlier this year, and the switch appears to have made it easier for the state to manipulate television coverage, Mukhin said.

The elections reaffirmed the belief that the "majority will vote for whomever Putin would want them to vote for," said Timothy Colton, director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

They also taught the Kremlin how to deal with a big headache from previous elections -- international observers, Makarkin said. The visa process for some observers was dragged so long out that they pulled out altogether.

Then on election day, state television reporters interviewed benevolent foreign observers and repeatedly broadcast their noncritical assessments that night, Makarkin said. When the observers criticized the elections as unfair the next day, state television mentioned the development in passing, without showing any interviews.

"Such a tactic undercuts the observers' criticism and portrays them as having quickly changed their minds" -- as if they had to wait for instructions from Washington, Makarkin said.