Russia: Vladimir Zhirinovsky
The Russian parliament (Duma) gets little coverage on US TV, but it made the grade when Vladimir Zhirinovsky started a spectacular fist fight. From Moscow. Cameron Sawyer says: Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his misnamed "Liberal Democratic Party" are the bane of Russian democracy, and in fact, the party was invented exactly to be that. The LDPR is one of the oldest political parties in Russia, having been created in the 1980's by the KGB as the single party state started to crumble. The purpose of the LDPR was as a diversion, to discredit democracy and to siphon off more gullible voters, all under the control of the KGB. After Communism ended, Zhirinovsky, surprised by his own success, managed to extricate himself from control of the weakened KGB, and developed the LDPR as his own enterprise.
The LDPR still uses tactics invented for the purpose by the KGB -- demogogic manipulation of the lowest levels of society, clownish antics (including the fist fights on the floor of the Duma mentioned by Ronald for which, yes, Ronald, he was censored), outrageous and usually belligerant statements (examples: "What Russia really needs is not socialism, not capitalism, not a social-market economy, but a sexual-market economy."; "We should flood Germany with nuclear waste"; "Let's just nuke Japan"; ), and absurd promises to the electorate intended just to embarrass the more responsible political figures of the country. Zhirinovksy is a great entertainer, but he is not a clown. He is a skillful demagogue who knows his audience, and he is an accomplished businessman. He is actually a fine speaker, and although he is deeply despised by anyone in Russia with average intelligence or higher, he is much in demand on television talk shows, and particularly, in the television debates which Russians love and which have become a mainstay of Russian television. He can switch his clown act on and off at will, and when he is not in clown mode, he can debate with anyone in the country. He is often called in to debate Communists on television; he becomes immediately serious and even professorial, and makes mincemeat of them, which televisions viewers love. All of this is totally cynical on his part -- the LDPR is a purely commercial enterprise. Duma seats for LDPR districts are sold to the highest bidder. Likewise, LDPR support for legislation. A not inconsequential share of the political influence of Russian oligarchs originated in Yeltsin's predicament with Zhirinovksy -- he had to find money to pay him off to support his policy initiatives.
A hilarious sidenote about Zhirinovksy is that in the early days of the LDPR, among many other outrageous policy lines, such as a proposed military invasion of India (!), he experimented with anti-Semitism (he wrote to Pat Buchanan, for example, that Jews should be deported to reservations). Soon after that, Russian journalists proved that Zhirinovsky was himself a Jew, or at least, the son of a Jew, and published their evidence. That was the end of that!
In contrast to Zhirinovsky's public antics, the LDPR does not engage in outrageous political initiatives. The LDPR peaked in 1993, and has gradually declined in influence ever since, although the LDPR bloc in the Duma is still a force to be reckoned with. Zhirinovksy hoped to become president, but got only 6% of the vote in 1996, and has since settled into his role as a parliamentarian. Zhirinovsky maintains strict discipline among LDPR Duma deputies, notwithstanding the fact that most of the seats were simply sold to businessmen desiring the immunity of a Duma deputy status (maybe this is even beneficial in terms of discipline; one of the conditions of sale may be that the buyers follow instructions). It is impossible to discern the principles behind LDPR voting in the Duma; that is one of the effects of Zhirinovsky's public behavior -- he has no responsibility to his electorate for any particular policy line because his votes don't come from people who were voting according to any policy line. Sometimes it seems that the LDPR votes according to a reasonably principled democratic program; at other times, it appears that LDPR voting is the result of a commercial arrangement with the party in power. Whatever the case, the LDPR has helped, from the early days of the Yeltsin administration, to destroy the Communists, and has generally supported liberal legislation. Zhirinovsky will surely be studied by political scientists for centuries to come.
RH: Is there anyone like him in the history of American or other Western politics?