'Artificial' party gets premier's election backing

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The Independent Online

Russians vote for a new state Duma on Sunday, with the country's politics transformed by the meteoric rise of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Russians vote for a new state Duma on Sunday, with the country's politics transformed by the meteoric rise of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The elections, which were expected to identify promising candidates for the presidency,have lost much of their power to excite, as the Chechen warhas made Mr Putin the favourite to take over at the Kremlin next year. Nevertheless, the Communist-dominated Duma, which obstructed many of President Boris Yeltsin's reforms, is on its way out.

The choice before the voters is staggering: a total of 26 parties will be listed on the ballot paper, although only about half a dozen have a chance of entering the 450-seat parliament.

Four months ago, the Fatherland-All Russia bloc seemed to have the winning formula. The former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov had joined forces with the energetic Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, and the party was attracting the type of Russian who had suffered from reform, yet rejected a return to Communism. But the rise of Mr Putin has changed everything.

Fatherland-All Russia seems to have lost its teeth and the Communists have recovered their position as the main opposition party; they now top the opinion polls with support of 18 to 25 per cent. Yabloko, the liberal party, is tipped to make a good showing but two other former prime ministers, Sergei Kiriyenko and Viktor Chernomyrdin, failed to cement their Our Home is Russia bloc, so the pro-market vote will be split.

The Kremlin has done all in its power to make sure the new Duma will consist of MPs with a constructive attitude to Mr Putin's government. A few weeks ago it created a new movement called Unity, even more artificial than the other parties. With the exception of the Communist Party, those are blocs of convenience with few links to the grassroots.

The Emergencies Minister, Sergei Shoigu, was roped in to lead Unity because of his good standing with the public. Breaking the unwritten rule that he should be above party politics, Mr Putin "let slip" his personal preference was for Unity. Suddenly the party jumped into second place in the opinion polls.

Six months is a long time in Russian politics but, if the federal losses in Chechnya remain manageable, Mr Putin has a very good chance of being the next president. It appears that he wants Mr Shoigu to serve as his prime minister.

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