Elections 0.0: Along Came Primaries in Russia

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Boris Mezhuev 

Political scientist, journalist 

The alien word “primaries” has already taken root in Russian political discourse. Nowadays primary elections defined as a means by which a political party nominates candidates for upcoming general elections or by-elections refer both to the situation across the pond and in Russia. 

On April 20, 2016 Russia’s President met with the United Russia party activists and held a videoconference with members of the party. Vladimir Putin voiced his opinion about the advantages of primaries which had been employed by the party in this electoral campaign and had already encouraged debates and discussions within United Russia. Putin stated that “primaries would help to find new, promising or interesting people, new politicians who will make their first steps at these upcoming primaries and will work for common betterment”. In other words, primaries may help to address the pressing problem of clearing the way for fresh blood to join the ruling party and Russia’s political establishment as a whole.

When Russia as part of the USSR adopted democracy, it incorporated many elements of the American political system. At that time such offices as Vice-President, State Secretary and National Security Advisor emerged in our country. None of this managed to put down roots in Russia. Yet the concept of primaries which has a special appeal for Americanists may have a different fate. The US primaries have made the 2016 presidential race extremely exciting and one can hope that these contests will become integral to Russia’s electoral campaign. At the same time, the President highlighted that we should not slavishly copy Western-style primaries which tend to involve too much name-calling and finger-pointing. Rather, from his perspective, we are supposed to focus on crucial and substantial issues. This strategy has proved to be effective so far, as Russia’s primaries have not been tarnished by any scandal, at least, within the United Russia party.

When primary elections were first held in the US, they were highly commended only by numerous lobbying groups. Party activists and the free media were actively campaigning against electoral competitions which, they believed, would lead to massive corruption and the manipulation of public opinion.

In 1920 twenty states conducted the primaries only to see the figure decrease to 12 by 1936. Most eligible voters who associated themselves with a concrete party were angered at the fact that every Tom, Dick and Harry could join the ranks of, let’s say, the US Democratic Party and change its agenda, profile and values.

Only by the end of the 1960s it had become clear that such equal opportunities were of greater significance, otherwise the electorate could start losing interest in their favorite party, let alone the voting procedure in general. Incidentally, it concerned all age groups. Despite party bosses’ and oligarchic groups’ continued attempts to “bribe everybody and interfere with elections”, primaries’ constant dropping was wearing a stone of the American establishment.

Over the recent decade the juiciest details of the US political life have been related to democratic practice within the parties. I mean the Christian Right’s and Ronald Reagan’s rise to power, Hillary Clinton deprived of the kind of clear-cut victory in the 2008 elections and also the Tea Party going to Capitol Hill…

This political season is experiencing such clashes and infighting in two parties which previously have been unthinkable. Well, what role would be playing Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders perform if they were individual candidates or nominees from some minor parties? Actually, they would be nothing. But today they are leaders of two key political movements in the US.

I would also like to draw your attention to the following fact. In summer 2015 when the primaries were just at their outset, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush had already concluded that the final electoral stage would pit them against each other. Affluent (and also cynical) voters from Washington D.C., New York and California were constantly yawning at banquets permanently stating, “Well, there now! Nothing interesting is happening. Let’s talk about fashion or baseball”.

Yet the situation turned out to be completely different. Residents of Alabama, Kentucky, Nevada and Wisconsin refused to speak about baseball. Moreover, they expressed their position weightily, because they were backers of these parties.

Will our contests be as exciting and formidable as in the US? Most likely so.

As regards the 2016 elections to the State Duma, primaries have several important functions. Above all, they draw attention of abstainers back to voting. Undoubtedly, electors who have already made up their mind about their candidates will seek to help them win mandates. It is one thing when you cast your ballot for a stranger recommended by the party, but it is another when you vote for a candidate who you have personally put up to the party. We can witness that these very elections will involve the search of new prominent people.

All important public figures are engaged by different parties. Some of them, however, refrain from taking part in the primaries. Those who accept the challenge and opt for participation draw the support of the electorate and gain a competitive advantage over their rivals. In five years we will learn who will live up to the expectations. And no one will be able to exploit the party brand – my activities went unnoticed in the Duma, and my party voted against raising the retirement age and for the return of the Crimea.

As of now, the Duma primaries have one major drawback. Not all the political parties hold them. The Liberal Democrats, the Communist party and the Democratic party Yabloko have the traditional list of candidates, compiled by the leaders of these movements. These party lists are then approved at the caucus. The inequality can be damaging to the candidates from the parties which have primaries. The democratic institution of primaries is linked to competition and disputes. In contrast, the parties which arbitrary nomination selection will seem a happy close union blissfully unaware of squabbles. Everything is unfolding in a civil matter in United Russia while tensions run high in the democratic coalition. The primaries will see such bitter clashes that will keep everyone on their toes until the election debates. So everyone should hold primaries to deprive the authoritarian parties of their illegal electoral advantage. And, of course, to enjoy one’s voting rights.

Showmanship is integral to public policy. If decision-making is spectacular, it grabs people’s attention and, therefore, breeds political consciousness. The policy does not imply the division into “we” and “they” as in NATO vs CSTO, patriots vs liberals, etc. It concerns taxes, schools, insurance, health care, police, courts, pensions…

Bear it in mind that words and actions should go together. If someone declares their intent to “improve”, they should not hide behind the back of the party leader or the incumbent president. One you pledge, don’t hedge. They should explain how they will achieve it. If we increase something, what will decrease then?

The problem is that the interparty debates are bound to result in mud-slinging: “We have achieved at least something and you haven’t achieved a thing”, “You are against every positive step, and we are for them”

In the primaries it will not work. If a party has decided to hold primaries and debates that means intraparty competition. The argument “you vs we” will not work. It will be a one-on-one.

In America candidates may use a ploy of calling their opponents in the primaries “a fake Republican” or “a fake Democrat”. Well, if we progress to the stage when a John Doe will be referred to as an “inconsistent advocate of the United Russia’s agenda” or “deviating from the line promoted by the democratic coalition”, I will be very happy. It will denote a step forward as we will finally begin to articulate who is a typical United Russia follower and who is a true representative of the democratic coalition.

Here we touch upon another important issue, which was earlier mentioned in the American case. It is related to intraparty debate.

In my opinion, Russia will definitely benefit from it.

How do things stand at the moment? If you are from the liberal opposition, you must embrace NATO, criticize the Church, promote same-sex marriages and abstain from mentioning the social state. A politician loyal to government must necessarily advocate social security, be hawkish in their anti-Western rhetoric even if they have not served a day in the army, call the Old World Gayrope and never utter a word about discouraged entrepreneurs.
This is not how things should stand. It excludes political evolution and electoral competition while trying to woo the voters. In this case, parties are similar to sects and their supporters look like indoctrinated followers of rival cults.

It goes without saying that sects also try to appeal to larger groups. But the advantage of political parties is that they allow voters to fight for themselves. Otherwise, parties would roughly be the size of the sects and would look like ones for undecided voters.  Sects shun competition and debate while parties welcome them. Otherwise how would the culture of political debate arise at all? To cut a long story short, primaries are better than their absence.

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