Russia: Yeltsin invites vote against democracy: Sunday's election is less about building a balanced political system than giving the President the right to steer Russia where he chooses

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The Independent Online
FREE elections are not exactly part of Russia's political tradition. For that reason alone, an air of excitement surrounds next Sunday's vote for a parliament to replace the Soviet-era assembly that Boris Yeltsin crushed with force in early October.

Yet the most important choice for more than 100 million Russian voters is not whether to send radical reformers, centrists, Communists or ultra-nationalists to the new legislature. It is whether to endorse Mr Yeltsin's draft constitution in a referendum on the same day.

If the constitution is passed, the composition of the parliament will matter little. Critics say the document affords Mr Yeltsin such sweeping powers that he will be able to overcome any objections to his policies that are raised in the assembly.

'The pharaoh, the tsar and the general secretary did not have such powers,' Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party's leader, told an election rally last week.

'The only real checks and balances in Russia are Yeltsin's personal qualities and inclinations,' said Melor Sturua, a political commentator for the newspaper Izvestia.

Mr Yeltsin, the leader in whom Western governments have invested their hopes for a tolerant, democratic, responsible Russia, places himself in a centuries-old tradition of Russian reformers, from Peter the Great onwards, who have decided to amass extensive personal powers in order to modernise their country. 'I will not deny that the President's powers in the draft constitution are indeed considerable. But what did you expect in a country that is used to tsars and strong leaders?' he asked.

The draft constitution gives Mr Yeltsin the exclusive right to nominate the prime minister, all other government ministers, the entire Supreme Court, the chief prosecutor and the head of the Central Bank. If the State Duma (lower house of parliament) rejects his candidate for prime minister three times, or if it calls a vote of no-confidence in the government twice in three months, then Mr Yeltsin can dissolve it.

The document makes impeachment of the president a virtual impossibility, by requiring a two- thirds vote in parliament and various rulings by courts that are likely to be disposed in Mr Yeltsin's favour. The parliament needs to muster a two-thirds majority to overrule a presidential veto on legislation. The constitution also curtails the autonomy of Russia's republics and regions, reversing their gains of recent years.

For these reasons, most of the 13 parties and electoral blocs contesting the election have attacked the constitution as a document that will stifle democracy at birth. Revealing the clenched fists inside his winter gloves, Mr Yeltsin threatened to deny free television time to parties criticising the document.

One of his closest allies, Vladimir Shumeiko, a First Deputy Prime Minister, then attempted to ban the Communist Party and the centrist Democratic Party of Russia from participation in the election on the grounds that they had called for a 'no' vote in the referendum. The move failed, but it illustrated the tendency of Mr Yeltsin's entourage to regard criticism and free debate as at best a nuisance, at worst political subversion. 'The current leaders are losing even the elementary notion of democracy. If we fail to notice this, then the next step from authoritarian rule to dictatorship will soon be with us,' said Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of a moderate reformist bloc.

For the constitution to take effect, more than half the electorate must vote, and more than half of those who vote must say 'yes'. Opinion polls lack credibility in Russia, but it is possible that the bullying tactics of Mr Yeltsin's camp reflect private soundings of the electorate's mood that indicate the vote may go against them. If the constitution fails to pass, then the parliamentary elections will be invalid and Russia will continue to lack a legitimate political system.

Fears of such a setback account for the Yeltsin team's unashamed manipulation of television and radio coverage to suit the pro-presidential bloc, Russia's Choice, headed by the economist Yegor Gaidar. A study by American and Russian analysts showed that, from 9 to 21 November, Mr Gaidar received 28 minutes of coverage on Ostankino, the most important television channel, compared with only 10 seconds for Mr Yavlinsky.

The 13 parties and blocs fit into four categories. The first consists of four liberal and reformist groups, of which the most important is Russia's Choice. The second consists of three centrist groups, and the third of three corporatist blocs including an ecologists' movement and a women's group. The fourth consists of three Communist and nationalist groups: the Communist Party, the Agrarian Party and the ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party.

Half the State Duma's 450 members will be chosen from electoral lists, and half on an individual constituency basis. Two candidates will also be elected from each of Russia's 88 regions to the upper house, the Council of the Federation.

Most groups are not true political parties but ragged coalitions formed around one or two dominant personalities. Russia's Choice, held to have the best chance of emerging as the largest bloc in parliament, is internally divided and could split up after the election.

But the fate of the parties counts for much less than whether voters approve Mr Yeltsin's constitution. Sunday's exercise in democracy is less about constructing a balanced political system than about giving Mr Yeltsin the right to steer Russia in whatever direction he chooses.