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Just a few months ago, Russian opposition figures Mikhail Kasyanov and Alexey Navalny were standing on a stage together, waving balloons and promising change. Today, they couldn’t be further apart.
Their alliance—a loose grouping of opposition parties called the Democratic Coalition—was short-lived. Instead of working together to try to gain political power, members of the coalition began elbowing each other for their share of influence.
As a result, the coalition has split without any real discussions or searches for compromise.
It didn’t take much for the Kremlin to destroy the Democratic Coalition. Based on PARNAS, the People’s Freedom Party founded in 1990, the coalition consisted of Navalny’s Progress Party, Democratic Choice, the December 5 Party, and the Libertarians.
The alliance fell apart very soon after the government-sponsored NTV channel released a film about former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, in which he was caught on hidden camera criticizing his coalition partners in a private setting.
The Navalny camp and Democratic Choice insisted that Kasyanov take part in primaries, although the coalition agreement had guaranteed him first place on the party’s slate of candidates for elections to the lower house of parliament, or Duma, which take place in September. Kasyanov, predictably, refused.
At first it seemed as though the opposition alliance had a solid and pragmatic foundation.
The PARNAS party had managed to get a foot in the door of Russia’s heavily skewed electoral process. That was by virtue of the fact that, before he was gunned down last year near the Kremlin, opposition figure Boris Nemtsov had managed to secure seats in the Yaroslavl regional legislature.
Under the rules set by the Kremlin, that meant that PARNAS, of which Nemtsov was a member, had the right to put forward Duma candidates without collecting signatures. The signature stage tends to present particular difficulties for opposition parties, since local election committees often use it to eliminate undesirable candidates.
While it had that advantage, the party lacked personalities who would appeal to voters.
Enter Alexey Navalny, a well-known figure with a strong and enthusiastic support base. His team gained valuable election experience during the 2013 Moscow mayoral race, where Navalny came in second.
At this point, everything appeared to have fallen into place for what in Russia is often called the “implacable” opposition—those mostly liberal groups that do not accept the legitimacy of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule and have been shunted aside from elections.
For the first time since 2003, this part of the opposition could put forward candidates in national elections: this had been all but impossible before 2012, when Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made some changes to party and election laws.
Though he himself was barred by a court order from running in elections, Navalny promised to bring the coalition more support. Members of the alliance reassured the public that their union was strong, and that they were having constructive discussions about all of their actions. They also pointed to the coalition agreement as a guarantee of the bloc’s stability.
The document does contain the rules of the game, but the wording leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It is rather like a palimpsest, on which one can still see the original writing, but with corrections and a new text scribbled over the top of the old one. Its main points are contradictory, revealing the parties’ initial intentions and aspirations, their different understanding of cooperation, and their desire, ultimately, to secure the best terms for themselves.
At the core of the agreement was the notion of holding primaries as the best way to select candidates. This idea was put forward by Navalny’s associates, but amended to satisfy the PARNAS leadership. As a result, Kasyanov was guaranteed first place on the party list, while two media personalities were given positions in the first six. The rationale for this choice was quite transparent: neither Kasyanov nor his party’s functionaries enjoy much recognition and popularity.
These seat reservations created several problems. They revealed the weakness of the PARNAS leadership and its fear of losing the primaries. A potential Democratic Coalition voter could reasonably ask what these people, who fear even such narrow elections by their supporters, are doing at the top of their party list.
It has also become clear that Kasyanov doesn’t really trust his coalition partners. Excluding the top slots on the party list from competitive elections negated the whole procedure of holding primaries, which every member of the coalition considered essential. Thus, the entire agreement was rendered meaningless.
The position of the Navalny camp, which insisted on holding primaries, also appears questionable. Primaries make sense when a few strong candidates are competing for one position: this is how the party tests its ability to attract supporters. Since the coalition has only a handful of charismatic and well-known figures, positions could be assigned on the basis of negotiations and polling data. So it would seem Navalny and his team didn’t trust PARNAS to keep its side of the bargain either.
The primaries option would favor Navalny, given the low voter turnout that was also characteristic of the 2015 regional elections. Under these circumstances, Navalny’s enthusiastic support base would guarantee his party candidates better places on the coalition list.
Members of the democratic bloc maintained that the opposition ranks were as consolidated as ever, despite the festering internal conflict. Instead of trying to resolve it, the parties simply included contradictory items in their coalition agreement.
Everything looked fine before the start of the actual election campaign. Once it got underway, the rules stopped working. The Democratic Coalition primaries failed to generate much interest among voters. The PARNAS leadership accused Navalny of not doing enough to promote early voting, thus blaming him for the low voter turnout during the procedure.
Mutual criticism started back before the broadcast of the damaging NTV film, suggesting that the coalition would have split even without the NTV documentary. It would have happened on the eve of the primaries or after the results were announced and inevitably contested by one of the parties.
One might think that the democratic opposition has lost yet again, and that the Kremlin has scored another victory. However, there could be a silver lining. The early split triggered by the Kasyanov documentary gives the opposition a chance to regroup.
The coalition construct has fallen apart well before the start of the campaign and candidate nominations. This means that the opposition may have learned its lessons from the unsuccessful alliance and can start building the coalition afresh, perhaps with other participants and configurations. For instance, Navalny supporters have already started talking about running alongside Yabloko, a liberal opposition party that has had some modest electoral successes but has been unable to significantly expand its support.
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