Russian election means parliamentary seat sale

Russian voters will only elect half the Duma this Sunday, the rest of the seats are for sale.

Russians go to the polls to elect a new parliament this Sunday. But unlike most countries voters will only elect half the parliament. The rest of the seats will be sold to rich businessmen.

Just like anywhere else, contesting an election in Russia is expensive. The hoopla, the pamphlets, the television advertising costs millions. But in Russia, political parties have come up with a unique fund-raising technique they sell seats in parliament.

"This is something that became a very good business for parties. They sell places on the party lists," said Yelena Shestapol, a Russian political scientist.

Boris Kaglaritsky, an independent political analyst and journalist, says selling seats in parliament, known as the Duma, may not be moral, or pretty, but there's no law against it. "It's is a very easy way to get financing for your electoral activities and also easy dollars for party leaders because part of the money goes directly into the pockets of the leader and this makes them very happy."

The safer the seat says Kaglaritsky, the higher the price.

Half the Duma deputies are selected in local riding elections, like in Canada. No party can guarantee a win in those seats. But the other half of the Duma is chosen directly by the party leaders based on their party's percentage of the national vote.

For example, the Communist party, which might reasonably expect the support of 20 per cent of the electorate, is virtually guaranteed 45 uncontested seats.

Kaglaritsky says those seats sell for "up to $3 million."

Seats in contested ridings where the party stands a good chance to win cost a lot less. "When you go outside the national list in seats that still have a very high chance of getting elected, it's about $1 million."

One of the attractions of having a seat in the Duma if you are a rich businessman is that Duma deputies have immunity from prosecution. If Yukos Oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in jail awaiting trial on income tax evasion charges, had bought himself a seat he'd be a free man today.

Not surprisingly there's a big demand.

An analysis of the candidates by the Moscow Times concludes 25 per cent of the candidates of United Russia and the Communist parties, are big businessmen. Sergei Muravlenko, an oil executive running on the Communist ticket, has a declared income of $11 million per year.

Leonid Dobrohotov, an adviser to Communist leader Gennady Zuganov, denies allegations by opposition parties that the Communist party has sold out its socialist principles. "The new Communist party does support entrepreneurs who are trying to make Russia strong and great again," he said.

Democracy is relatively new to Russia, and unlike the West where middle class citizens contributing to a political party is so common it's a tax deduction, a middle class is just starting to emerge in Russia.

Dobrohotov says the reality is that Russian political parties have no choice but to turn to millionaire businessmen for funding.