22 октября 2003

Spin doctors fight for election profits

Maria Danilova, The Moscow Times

Special to The Moscow Times Political consultants say they expect to make fat profits on the upcoming State Duma elections as they scramble for a share of parties´ and candidates´ campaign funds.

But while the funds up for grabs may be greater, competition between agencies is likely to be fiercer too.

The country´s leading spin-doctor agencies are devoting most of their staff and resources to the 450-seat elections, saying they anticipate that candidates will spend well over the legal campaign-fund limit.

Alexei Sitnikov, president of political consultant Image Contact, has estimated that the main political parties would spend around $50 million each to win seats in the Duma, far in excess of the 250 million rubles ($8.35 million) allowed for parties´ federal list campaigns under election laws.

He said that up to $400 million would probably be spent campaigning for the 225 single-mandate seats, citing a "$2 per voter" benchmark formula.

Image Contact says it has 70 percent of its staff working with single-mandate candidates, regional and federal campaigns, and other political campaigning.

According to Sitnikov, some clients had already started hiring consultants as early as this spring, while others are still negotiating.

The firm says it avoids discussing politics directly in client negotiations. "We are an absolutely independent and apolitical structure," Sitnikov said.

"We decide on our clients not based on their political affiliation, but based on their personalities -- we´re psychologists." He added that Image Contact works with all parties except those on the extreme right and extreme left.

After working out a candidate´s campaign strategy, based on an analysis of his or her strengths and weaknesses, the next stage involves so-called "political technologies," promoting the candidate and working to win the election.

Although political PR has often been criticized for the use of dirty tricks to discredit competitors, Sitnikov said political consulting was a "highly intellectual activity" and only a lack of professionalism would lead a consultant to resort to "black PR."

"Before we send our team to work on a specific project, we tell them not to use doubtful methods, not to use them first. But then of course, if their candidate is hit below the waist by his opponent, then they have to defend him," Sitnikov said.

Sitnikov declined to make any forecast of the election outcome. "First of all, I don´t know whether and to what extent the falsification factor will play a role in this election, as was the case in the 1996 presidential race and in several gubernatorial elections," he said. He said results would depend greatly on whether candidates were barred from standing by the courts for violating election laws.

"Finally, the outcome will depend on whether the oligarchs will risk investing in these elections, after what happened to Khodorkovsky," he said.

Yekaterina Yegorova, the co-chairwoman of Nikkolo M, one of Moscow´s leading political consulting firms, predicts its annual turnover will rise up to fourfold this year. The firm says it is working for over 80 single-mandate candidates and one centrist party bloc.

"Our people are living on planes, traveling around the country," she said from the company´s office on Petrovka Ulitsa.

Yegorova said that that competition would be fiercer between political consultants than during the election campaign of four years ago, as new players compete for Duma seats -- such as Sergei Glazyev´s Homeland party and Rebirth of Russia/Party of Life, the bloc led by Gennady Seleznyev and Sergei Mironov.

"The motive of capturing votes is stronger than the motive of holding on to what you already have," said Yegorova.

Yegorova predicted that the Communist Party, United Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party would be elected to the Duma, with second-tier support going to the People´s Party, Rebirth of Russia/Party of Life, Yabloko and SPS.

She added that either Yabloko or SPS would have difficulty passing the 5 percent barrier necessary to enter parliament, depending on the spread of votes among liberal parties.

Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, said he expects his agency´s revenues to double thanks to the elections.

He said it was difficult to put a figure on parties´ nationwide campaign spending, since "few political consulting firms get exclusive contracts to work with a political party from A to Z."

But he said a single-mandate political campaign could cost around $250,000 "for a promising candidate," rising to anywhere up to $500,000 "for a mediocre one," figures also above the legally-permitted spending limit of 6 million rubles per single-mandate candidate.

As for which parties his agency would work with, Bunin said the situation had changed over the last couple of elections.

"There used to be a very distinct line dividing the good from the bad, the former being all liberal parties and the latter all the rest," he explained in his office in Moscow´s Kitai-Gorod area. "But now the electorate has diversified, the ideologies have mixed and we can work with liberal as well as centrist parties," Bunin said.

Bunin expects centrist parties to win around 54 percent of Duma seats, leftist parties 30 percent, the LDPR around 6 percent, and Yabloko and SPS a combined 10 percent.

But Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that while consultants will overall likely earn more this year, per company revenues may not be significantly higher than in previous election years.

"This is not a pioneer market anymore, like 1995," he said. "There is fierce competition among political consultants these days."

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