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  • Is Russian Democracy Doomed?Explaining the Vote
  • Michael McFaul (bio)

The future of Russian democracy has never been more uncertain. Vladimir Zhirinovsky's unexpected electoral victory, plus the strong showing of the Communists and their rural counterparts, the Agrarian party, have combined with the dismal performance of Russia's Choice and other proreformist parties to produce a political situation as unstable as before the election. What happened?

Any explanation of Russia's December vote must begin with the current dismal state of the country's economy. Beginning in January 1992, Russia's first postcommunist government launched the most revolutionary program of economic transformation ever peacefully attempted by a modern state. Like any effort comprehensively to restructure an economy and society, this program sowed massive dislocation, discontent, and anxiety among the general populace—a clear recipe for a sizeable opposition vote. In light of recent election results in Poland, Lithuania, and even in Russia's own April 1993 referendum, it should have come as no surprise that a significant part of the electorate would vote against those associated with market reforms.

The question to ask, then, is not why there was a strong opposition vote, but rather why so much of it went to Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist LDP. After all, there were 11 other parties vying for this vote. Moreover, only a month before the election, opinion polls (albeit untrustworthy) placed Zhirinovsky's support at what seemed to be a safely negligible level of less than 2 percent. [End Page 4]

Several political factors having little to do with "shock therapy," the social safety net, or the failures of economic reform shaped the surprising outcome. First, Russia's mixed electoral system benefited the LDP. With half of the seats in the Duma filled according to the party-list system, the LDP was able to ride the coattails of its charismatic leader, taking almost a quarter of the party-list popular vote and just under 60 seats. Of the 225 single-constituency seats in the Duma, however, LDP candidates won only five, and they won no seats in the upper chamber, the Federal Council. In a purely majoritarian electoral system, the Liberal Democratic Party would probably not have won more than ten seats.

Second, Zhirinovsky and his party mounted the best campaign. The LDP secured more television time than any other party or bloc beside Russia's Choice. Zhirinovsky himself received more television exposure than any other candidate. Given the short electoral season (only one month), television was by far the most important campaign medium. Zhirinovsky used his time on the air very effectively, speaking in short sentences, using simple language, and addressing issues of personal concern to many voters. He promised more housing for military officers, decried "unfair" prices in farmers' markets, and demanded more police for crime-ridden cities. He lambasted the incumbent government as a pack of theoreticians who cared little about the Russian people, and blamed a string of scapegoats—among them Caucasians, Jews, neighboring countries, and the West for Russia's woes. Zhirinovsky promised everything to everyone in snappy, slickly produced advertisements.

A third important factor was the fragmentation of the democratic forces into four separate blocs. Ideological nuances aside, the real reason for this fragmentation was personal ambition. The divisions made the democratic defeat look worse than it really was. An election in which a democratic coalition won 34 percent of the popular vote would have looked a lot better than December's outcome, in which the leading democratic party won only about 15 percent. In some of the single-constituency races, a Communist or ultranationalist candidate managed to carry the district with a small minority of the popular vote due to the feuding among democrats. This feuding went right to the top, with major reformist leaders like Yegor Gaidar and Grigory Yavlinsky spending more time criticizing each other than attacking antireform opponents such as Zhirinovsky.

Finally, the disastrous performance of the leading democratic bloc, Russia's Choice, is worth a closer look. The biggest handicap under which Russia's Choice labored was Boris Yeltsin's noninvolvement, which flowed from his conviction that, as president of all Russians, he was above party politics. His only participation...