Beltway Briefing

1. The House of Representatives is set to vote against a bill authorising the US action in Libya in a further blow to Barack Obama's authority. Republicans and Democrats are furious that the US President failed to seek congressional authorisation before the start of the mission as required under the 1973 War Powers Resolution. "The war in Libya is illegal, unconstitutional and unwarranted. It must end," Democratic representative Dennis Kucinich said.

The House will also vote on a bill to cut off funding for US military attacks in Libya. "The president has ignored the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, but he cannot ignore a lack of funding," said Republican Tom Rooney, the sponsor of the bill. "Only Congress has the power to declare war and the power of the purse, and my bill exercises both of those powers by blocking funds for the war in Libya unless the president receives congressional authorisation."

The measure would allow US forces to remain engaged in non-hostile actions in Libya such as search and rescue efforts, intelligence, surveillance and refueling. The bill is expected to pass in the House but it is almost certain to fail in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

2. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has released a new video entitled "Obama's Misery Index: Ryan's Story". In the video, Ryan King of Midland, Michigan, reflects on the woes of unemployment: "I buy bologna and bread, commonly, because it's cheap - what I eat."

The Misery Index, an unofficial chart totalling unemployment and inflation rates, is at one of its highest levels in 28 years. In a sign of how fragile the US economic recovery is, the Index is set to register at 12.7 for May - 9.1 per cent for unemployment and 3.6 per cent for inflation.

3. A new Sarah Palin documentary will premiere in Iowa next week, according to reports. The Undefeated , directed by conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon, chronicles Palin's rise from Alaska governor to vice presidential candidate.

Palin, who has yet to announce whether she will enter the 2012 presidential race, has been invited to attend the premiere. A preview of the film can be seen below.

4. Republican hopeful John Huntsman has opened his campaign office in the bellweather state of Florida. Huntsman, who officially entered the presidential race on Tuesday, said he chose Orlando for his campaign's headquarters because his wife, Mary Kaye, grew up in the area.

In an address to staff and volunteers, he pledged to avoid personal attacks on his opponents. "I want people who work in this office to remember that civility means something," Huntsman said. "I believe that you don't have to run down another human being to run for president of the United States."

5. Barack Obama is to visit Iowa on Monday as part of his "Winning the Future" tour of companies and manufacturing plants. The US President will tour a Davenport Alcoa plan to highlight the role of advanced manufacturing in American job creation and exports. Obama's visit will follow that of Republican hopeful Michele Bachmann, who is due to officially launch her presidential bid in Waterloo, Iowa, on Monday. Obama won the state in 2008 by 54 per cent to John McCain's 45 per cent.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times