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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LIVE FROM MOSCOW: Duma Elections a Bit of a Gamble




Russia's financial markets may be comatose, but one financial exchange offers a chance to indulge that pent-up urge to speculate: futures trading on the results of the final State Duma elections.


Of course, they aren't regular futures, since there's no deliverable commodity behind them. The idea of the Russian Exchange is to have fun.


The stakes are not as high as they are for the politicians running: Each "contract" purchased requires only a 2,000-ruble ($80) deposit and bets can be placed by phone through one of the exchange's brokers - though most of the players are brokers themselves, who don't have many real futures to trade these days.


The futures of the Communists and the Otechestvo, or Fatherland, party of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov get traded most actively.


"Traders" bet on what they think the candidate's vote percentage will be in the election, though most people don't wait for the election but bet on the candidate's percentage rating at the end of the day, based on what other people bet.


The starting positions for the parties' futures were based on surveys by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM.


Over 12 weeks of betting, the Communists have fallen from 25 percent to 20.83 percent, Yabloko went up from 8 percent to 9.9 percent, Otechestvo dropped from 15 percent to 13.9 percent, and Right Cause, the new liberal party lost 0.2 percent from its initial 2 percent standing.


The market responds quickly to political events: As soon as Viktor Chernomyrdin was named envoy for the Yugoslavia crisis, the rating of his Our Home Is Russia party went up 29 percent.


"Our trades come the closest to the actual [election] results. No VTsIOM, no other sociological institute could do that," said Pavel Panov, president of the Russian Exchange.


The practice began with betting on the 1996 presidential election. Panov said brokers were only 0.12 percentage points off in their prediction of how President Boris Yeltsin would fare in the first round. For the run-off, the brokers underestimated Yeltsin by 1.89 points predicting he would gather 52.50 percent of the vote instead of the real result of 54.39. They overestimated contender Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, by 1.77 points.


In 1996, when as many as 5,000 bets on presidential candidates were made daily, some of the traded personalities visited the exchange and showed themselves off for the traders.


"I think only Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] did not visit us," said Larisa Smirnova, the head of the exchange's futures department.


"I am already getting calls from the heads of the parties who have gotten word that we had started trading," Smirnova said. "So far, all they are offering is help and moral support and ask if they could please see our results. And we don't turn them down."


Duma Deputy Viktor Peshkov, a secretary of the Communist Party responsible for election technologies, said that the party does not have an official stand on betting. But personally, Peshkov added, he detested the idea. "If the law allows it, so be it. ... But I would never bet on another human being," he said in a telephone interview.


One pollster says the betters' guesses about how people will do were fairly accurate, but not better than professional polling.


"They came pretty close, but our data were the most accurate," said Leonid Sedov, political analyst with VTsIOM, adding that it was VTsIOM who won the special accuracy contest that the Central Election Committee held among the survey firms in the 1996 election.


But it was the political analysts who seemed to be the most excited about the news of the political betting reopening.


"I will play again," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies. "This is entertaining; it gives some political perspective. Besides, people get bored. They need some excitement. When the Hippodrome closed some time ago, I remember people standing in front of the building and making bets on what tram would arrive next."


Then, he paused and added, rapid-fire: "I would buy Yabloko, sell Otechestvo, sell the Agrarians, and buy Right Cause."