Is This Last Red Duma?

If the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, votes to reject President Boris Yeltsin's nominee for prime minister, be it Viktor Chernomyrdin or someone new, for a third time next week and Yeltsin subsequently dissolves the parliament and calls for new elections, most people believe that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, or KPRF, would win a landslide victory.

As Russia's economy continues to collapse and the president continues to demonstrate little leadership in handling the crisis, the time looks ripe for the Communists to seize power again, but this time through the ballot box.

This is an oversimplified assumption. Before voting, KPRF leaders may want to consider several factors that could undermine their ability to secure a majority in parliament after fresh elections, let alone "seize power."

Ironically, the KPRF may actually win a higher percentage of the popular vote in new elections but have fewer seats under their control in a new parliament. A comparison of the factors that shaped the 1995 parliamentary vote with thefactors that will influence a 1998 parliamentary vote reveals several important differences.

First, the KPRF might not enjoy the multiplier effect it benefitted from in 1995 regarding proportional representation, or party list, seats. In 1995, the KPRF won 22 percent of the popular vote, but won 44 percent of the seats allocated according to the party list system because half of the votes cast on the party list ballot went to parties that did not cross the 5 percent threshold. The same will not automatically be true in the next parliamentary election. A new draft electoral law the Kremlin has proposed includes several new restrictions to prevent a proliferation of parties.

Most importantly, the law would prohibit the top three names on the party list from competing in single-mandate districts. In 1995, famous politicians had a real incentive to create their own party, as they received free television time and increased notoriety as the leader of a "party" that in turn helped them win their single-mandate seat, even if they stood no chance of garnering 5 percent of the popular vote on the party ballot. Several prominent deputies including Nikolai Ryzhkov, Sergei Baburin, Irina Khakamada and Boris Fyodorov won their races in this way. Under the new election law, they would have to choose, and most would opt to run in the single-mandate districts and not compete in the party list election.

A second factor that will hurt the KPRF is the formation of electoral blocs associated with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, Alexander Lebed. Both plan to run party lists in new parliamentary elections and opinion polls suggest that both can steal votes away from the KPRF. Both Lebed and Luzhkov represent much more serious challengers to the KPRF than did those opposition parties competing with the Communists in 1995. It is also very likely that the KPRF may split before the next vote because militants within the party have grown tired of Gennady Zyuganov's constant compromising.

Third, KPRF deputies and their allies will face much stiffer competition in the single-mandates races in 1998 than they did in 1995. The greatest surprise of the 1995 election was the collapse of centrist candidates in single-mandate races. The Communist and Communist-affiliated "opposition" captured in 1995 about 100 additional seats previously held by centrist deputies. This dramatic swing occurred because the party of power at the time, Our Home Is Russia, was poorly organized and governors, who at the time were still appointed by the president, did not play an active role in these elections. This time around, however, the governors will play an active role in these single-mandate races to try to send to Moscow representatives who will be loyal to them rather than the KPRF (or to a new party of power).

Fourth, several KPRF deputies will run as independents in the next election. These deputies have had disagreements with Zyuganov over the past two years and will turn to governors or Gazprom, not the KPRF, for support to win re-election.

Fifth, no matter who is in charge of the government during the campaign period, the acting prime minister and financial actors who support him will blame the KPRF for this latest political crisis. Negative campaigning against the KPRF will chase votes to parties such as Yabloko.

One final new factor, however, that will play in favor of the KPRF will be low voter turnout. In the context of a collapsing economy, communist loyalists will go to the polls in high numbers while former supporters of reformist parties will stay home.

Yet even if the KPRF does succeed in winning an outright majority in the next parliament, so what? Will a slightly more red parliament really alter whatever leverage they now have vis-a-vis the president and the government?

If parliamentary elections occur in 1998, the KPRF actually may weaken its chances to win or influence the presidential election. If it agrees after a parliamentary election to join a coalition government, then the KPRF will be held accountable for the deepening economic crisis that only the most optimistic predict will end before the next presidential election. On the other hand, if it keeps opposing the government but does not change policy, then voters will ask why it was necessary to have early parliamentary elections? Both scenarios weaken the long-term prospects for a Communist or Communist ally to hold power in the Kremlin anytime soon. By voting against the nominee next week, the Communists may yet again prove to be their own worst enemies -- and Yeltsin's best enemy.

Michael McFaul is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.