Inside Russia's most basic law of economic rights, Chapter 17 has a big hole: There's no statute on the buying and selling of land. Over the last four years, President Boris Yeltsin and the Communist-dominated parliament have fought each other to a bitter stalemate over creating a land code to fill one of the many gaps in the quest to become a market economy.
Sunday's election for a new lower house of parliament may break that political impasse and others like it, according to analysts and politicians. The chamber, called the State Duma, is the unruly workshop of Russia's transformation to a market democracy, and the election will provide an important clue about what direction the transition will take.
The Communists and nationalists who dominate the lower chamber have frustrated many attempts to pass more market-oriented economic legislation, including a new tax law. They pressed the government for more subsidies. They voted to restrict freedom of religion, attempted to impeach Yeltsin, and declined to approve a major arms control treaty with the United States.
While the parliament managed to approve a new civil and criminal code, it was accused in the press of being beholden to wealthy lobbyists and tycoons. It did not come to grips with Russia's national identity, failing to agree on the lyrics of the national anthem.
But the new Duma could be different, and analysts say it could be less resistant to change. If the final polls are a good indicator of voter preferences, the Communists may still have the biggest bloc. But there appears to be a chance that the remainder of the chamber will become more centrist. The Communists could be surrounded by parties more inclined to cooperate with the government, and with more market-oriented views.
"The future Duma has a chance to become more sensible than the current one," said Mark Urnov, a former Kremlin political strategist who is now director of the Expertise Foundation here. "The Communists are not going to reign any more."
These predictions are pinned largely on the unexpected surge of popular support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and a brand new party, created by the Kremlin just a few months ago, which appears to be riding high on Putin's coattails. The new party, called Unity, is headed by Sergei Shoigu, the minister for emergency situations (such as earthquakes). While it has virtually no program other than backing Putin, the party has grown rapidly in the polls since Putin declared he would vote for it.
Forecasts for a more centrist Duma also rest on polls showing that pro-market reformers led by former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko also have a good chance to make it into parliament. Two other parties with a centrist bent are almost certain to win seats: Yabloko, led by Grigory Yavlinsky, and the Fatherland-All Russia bloc, headed by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. Also, polls show that ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky stands a chance to make it. Despite his clownish image and sharp anti-Western rhetoric, Zhirinovsky in recent years has cast votes close to the government's.
The 450-member Duma is elected in two parts. Half the seats are chosen based on the vote for party lists; a party must get a minimum of 5 percent to win Duma seats. The other half are chosen in individual districts based on whichever candidate gets the most votes.
Since the individual district candidates are not always linked to parties, some weeks may pass before the composition of the chamber is clear. Urnov said about 100 candidates so far have not allied with any party. If 60 of them join Putin's party, he said, then it will likely be as large as the Communists were in the Duma's last session, when they had 158 seats.
The upper house of parliament, called the Federation Council, is made up of regional leaders, only a few of whom face reelection this time.
Putin's strong standing, based on popular backing of the war in Chechnya, is still fragile and unpredictable. But his ascendancy has lifted the Unity party into second place in some surveys, even though no one has a good idea what the party stands for.
"Unity is the most apolitical bloc. Those who are used to some kind of program say, 'There is no program,' " pollster Alexander Oslon said. "Unity is the people who like Putin."
Urnov said Unity is "a party that seeks to establish order and ensure stable rules of the market. They would aim to fight crime, money laundering, economic crimes. . . . They are pragmatists and doers."
Others say the bloc was the brainstorm of Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon who is close to Yeltsin's inner circle. The Unity party is reminiscent of earlier Kremlin efforts to forge, from the top down, a centrist political party. The 1995 attempt, Our Home is Russia, which was led by then-prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, is on the ballot this year, but has little chance of winning seats.
One impact of the surge of support for Unity has been to undermine the Luzhkov-Primakov group, which has seen its fortunes decline under the withering heat of a Kremlin smear campaign. Unity has grabbed some of that bloc's support.
The market reformers also have made something of a comeback this year. Despite disenchantment with liberal, open economic policies following the 1998 devaluation, the Kiriyenko party appears to have done well in capturing the imagination of younger voters. Strategist Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia's privatization, won a gamble when he gave early and strong support to Putin and the war effort. Yavlinsky, the other market reformer, is also a favorite among younger voters, but hesitated in supporting the war.
The Communists have been pushed out of the limelight this year amid all the attention devoted to Putin, but they still enjoy a strong base of 20 percent of the electorate, predominantly among the old and poor. They have backed the Chechen war while continuing, as in the past, to declare the Yeltsin "regime" to be a "catastrophe" for Russia. While not abandoning populist themes, some Communists appear to be trying to evolve into something more like a Western European social democratic party.
The Race for the Duma
Twenty-seven parties and blocs and 2,318 candidates from 224 districts are contesting Sunday's elections for the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. Half of the chamber's 450 seats go to parties and political blocs that muster more than 5 percent, with seats allocated in proportion to vote totals for particular parties. Winners in individual districts occupy the remaining 225 seats (Actually, 224 this time because elections are not being held in war-torn Chechnya). Polls open at 8 a.m. local time and close at 8 p.m.
Following are the front-running parties and blocs:
Communist Party --
Far left-wing party advocates redirecting economic reforms, including more state protection for industry, slower privatization and a wide social security net.
Leading Candidates: Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov.
Yedinstvo (Unity) -- Newly formed regional based election bloc with a vague program. It hinges on popularity of its leader, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, and support from extremely popular Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Leading Candidates: Shoigu and nine-time world wrestling champion Alexander Karelin and former senior police official Alexander Gurov.
Fatherland-All Russia --
Left-leaning centrist coalition led by former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and other powerful regional governors.
Leading Candidates: Primakov, Luzhkov and Vladimir Yakovlev, governor of St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city.
Liberal party promising more reforms, anti-corruption campaigns and defense of the middle class. Its leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, has declined government posts and thus is not tainted with blame for unpopular reforms, as are most other liberal leaders.
Leading Candidates: Yavlinsky, former prime minister Sergei Stepashin.
Union of Right-Wing Forces --
Coalition of "young reformers" who held senior cabinet positions and are associated by many with hardships suffered during economic reform. The architect of Russia's privatization, Anatoly Chubais, is a key strategist.
Leading Candidates: Former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko and former first deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov.
Zhirinosvky Bloc --
It largely is made up of members of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. It advocated radical policy changes including state control of the economy, but later became the government's strongest supporter in the Duma.
Leading Candidate: Zhirinovsky
SOURCES: Reuters, The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion
CAPTION: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walks past a sign promoting today's parliament elections.