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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

End of Bipolar Politics

Immediately after President Boris Yeltsin's landslide win in July, politics in Russia seemed to be stabilizing. For many both in Russia and the West, Yeltsin's unprecedented second presidential election victory signaled the end of communism and the consolidation of the reigning "party of power." Three months later, the stabilizing effects of Russia's last presidential vote are not so apparent. Uncertainty surrounding Yeltsin's ability to serve out a second term suggests that new presidential elections will happen sooner rather than later. Though the last elections took place only three months ago, Russia's electoral landscape has since changed fundamentally.

First of all, the threat of a communist comeback died in the ballot box in July. When given the choice between the communist past or an anti-communist future, Russians overwhelmingly voted for the latter. This rejection of communism in turn has produced real changes in the organization of communist parties and movements in Russia, the kind of changes that communists in Eastern Europe were forces to undertake six years ago. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov's new political organization, the National Patriotic Union of Russia, seeks to distance itself from more orthodox communists. In repositioning for his next presidential run, Zyuganov does not want to be portrayed as a outside threat to the current system, but rather as someone who can reform it from within.

But anti-communism is also dead. In every election over the past six years, anti-communism has been used to triumph over communism. But with the collapse of communism now complete, the anti-communist bloc has lost its raison d'etre. Moreover, in the next presidential election, the founder and leader of Russia's anti-communist bloc, Boris Yeltsin, will no longer be heading the ticket.

The "party of power" is neither internally unified nor ideologically homogenous. The common interests uniting Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin will fade over time. While their common fear of Security Council chief Alexander Lebed may make them allies in the next presidential elections (Anatoly Chubais, the president's chief of staff, could provide the glue), their shared ambitions to become president may not. Any one of these three potential presidential candidates might be compelled to seek an alliance with Zyuganov or other "opposition" leaders, especially in the second round of Russia's two-ballot presidential election system.

Shifting alliances and reorganization in both the "party of power" and the "party of opposition" has blurred the traditional lines of cleavage that have shaped Russian electoral politics over the last six years. As demonstrated by their increased contact and cooperation lately, the salient divisions between Chernomyrdin and Zyuganov are less apparent in September than they were in July, while differences between Kremlin comrades Chubais and Lebed seem much more striking.

This lack of ideological clarity is compounded by the absence of an institutionalized party system. Russia does not have interest-based, ideological political parties, the kind of parties that shape electoral choices in consolidated democracies. Consequently, Russian citizens will be voting for personalities, rather than liberals, conservatives, or social democrats. Bright personalities like Lebed gain from this new political setting, while gray ones like Chernomyrdin and Zyuganov suffer.

In the past, the bipolar division between communism and anti-communism compelled voters to choose between systems and not candidates. This helps explain why Yeltsin maintained negative approval ratings throughout the recent campaign but could still win a landslide victory. Today, however, expect Russian voters to choose candidates who best appear to represent their self-interests.

In the short run, this will favor opposition or protest voters in a presidential race. While many may not support Zyuganov again, they are extremely unlikely to vote for anyone identified with the status quo. Over time, this opposition vote (the median age of this segment of electorate is over retirement age) will dissipate. But in the event of an early election, a large segment of Russia's voting electorate will go to an opposition or protest candidate. Today, Lebed is the obvious heir apparent to this large protest vote; a Lebed endorsed by Zyuganov (after the first round in Russia's two-ballot system) would be tough to beat.

At the same time, the preferences of the 40 million people who supported Yeltsin in the second round are not so obvious. With the fear of communism fading, they will be more likely to split their support among competitors from within the party of power and less likely to vote at all. (Do not expect a 70 percent turnout again.) Moreover, Lebed can compete for these former Yeltsin supporters just as well as Chernomyrdin or Luzhkov. Remember, roughly 7 million of Yeltsin's supporters in the second round had voted for Lebed in the first.

A final difference between previous Russian elections and the next presidential ballot makes this new electoral landscape less worrisome than might appear at first glance. As they plot their moves to succeed Yeltsin, all serious contenders are making strategic calculations about their futures based on the assumption that the next Kremlin ruler will come to power through the ballot box and not some other method. All major contenders are either morally committed to the democratic process, strategically optimistic about their chances of winning, or too weak to pursue an alternative method. This shared commitment to the electoral process by all major political forces did not exist just a few months ago. As long as all major actors continue to adhere to these new rules of the game, the final outcome of the next presidential election will be less important than the process itself.

Michael McFaul is an assistant professor at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.