Promoting the Presidential “Daisy”

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Piotr Skorobogaty


How Public Politics Gradually Brings the State under Control

The State Duma elections scheduled for September 2016 will be a prominent milestone in the sweeping political reform introduced by Vladimir Putin back in 2012. However, it will take years to evaluate its outcome, as the system and institutions are still undergoing transformation and the dialogue between the state and society becomes closer and more meaningful year by year, with presidential initiatives in the field of direct and representative democracy contributing to the process. By now a lot of mechanisms have just been outlined to be implemented later, with all the institutional arrangements provided. The evolving regional power also has an important role to play, given that it remains rigid and reluctantly acquiesces to the federal leaning towards openness, competition and legitimacy. Nevertheless, Alexei Zudin, political analyst, expert of The Institution of Socio-Economic and Political Studies think tank, believes that we have every expectation of witnessing substantive changes in our political system in 2016-2018.

Piotr Skorobogaty: Alexey Yurievich, how would you assess the progress of the comprehensive political reform? Is it possible to claim that the future political system and the party system have already been outlined by now?

Alexei Zudin: In short, the interim results match the expectations and comply with the principles, stated by Viacheslav Volodin, namely openness, competitiveness, and legitimacy. Government has become more representative; public confidence has grown. Political competition reveals the real political weight of actors and rejects those irrelevant. It provides for more stable political institutions which are formed through competitive elections. When a referendum is due, they resort to coalition strategies to help minor political figures gain a platform.

Now, it is time for a more detailed analysis. The first issue to consider is shaping a competitive party system. Ambitious individuals and groups of interest have been granted an opportunity to set up new parties. And they jumped at this chance. It resulted in reasonable diversity and the emergence of a three-level pyramid: a big parliamentary tetrad, parties from local legislative bodies and the remaining parties.

PS: Are the third-level parties worthy considering? They seem largely irrelevant and have a limited electoral base. They cannot even make it to the second league.

AZ: There is a lot of dead weight at the third level, sure. But mind that any reform can produce side effects. Moreover, I would not dare say that all third level parties, for example “The Communists of Russia”, are spoilers. These parties are tasked with preserving the competitive landscape and challenging political forces which are ideologically aligned. What is more, it naturally broadens electoral choice. Small parties which are highly unlikely to win political office and exercise government power, use regional elections as a platform to articulate their views at the federal level.

PS: Have political parties become closer to the grassroots?

AZ: The comprehensive reform, as I see it, has reached its objectives as the electoral system and the party system largely meet the expectations of the grassroots. It was not confined to merely legislative decisions. I would like to draw your attention to primaries which deliver the result, even though some problems remain. It is symptomatic that the critics’ attitude to the mechanism has been improving. The primaries can serve as a useful tool for political parties to better represent its constituency as well as to evolve and refashion itself.

Among other things, the comprehensive reform has brought about the transition from the dominant party regime to the cartel party one. This very political term describes unchallenged prevalence of the State Duma Tetrad, four political parties in the lower chamber. However, the cartel is a sealed system, while in this case the system is more fluid as there are two more layers. It makes the cartel system provisory and open. It makes it possible to join and to quit the system, as well as to change proportions within the system. The core of the party system has become composite, and its ability to reshape itself has improved.

It the light of all the above mentioned, it would be a big mistake to regard the existing party system as an accomplished task. Most probably, the 2016 State Duma will comprise the four major political parties. Nevertheless, the party system will change to meet strong popular demand. In future, the party system may evolve into a two-party one with the further rotation of power.

What else? We now hold gubernatorial elections. I deliberately use the word “hold” rather than “resume holding”. People tend to use the latter, but I do consider this term to be wrong because gubernatorial elections are held in the new institutional and political environment. It is a new institution with the embedded accountability mechanism. Earlier the mechanism did not exist or functioned improperly.

PS: What do you mean by new accountability mechanisms?

AZ: Now people are entitled to remove a governor in a referendum. The President can also make a governor step down. Nowadays governors have much stronger ties with political parties than before. Thus, the head of the region is deeply integrated into a coherent political system and has to adhere to democratic principles. Earlier after the local elections governors were left to their own devices. They became self-sufficient which led to harmful consequences for their electoral commitments and pledges as well their performance. Now this malfunction has been eliminated.

PS: The municipal reform was a salient element of the comprehension political reform. But it seems to have received a cautious welcome, especially by the people from small and medium sized towns, who forfeited the right to elect mayors directly.

AZ: The comprehensive reform was typified by the need to satisfy popular demands for public participation. At first glance the municipal reform defies this logic. Various polls and other evidence have shown that Russians prefer direct elections of local statesmen.

Meanwhile, the municipal reform has abolished mayoral elections countrywide. The law delegated the right to adapt the reform to local legislatures. The regional elites preferred the abolition and, consequentially, they assumed responsibility for the local political situation at the municipal level.

It resulted in a controversy when the new local bodies do not fully live up to popular expectations. But follow-up consequences, including some contradictions should not serve as the only criterion to evaluate the municipal reform. It also creates new opportunities, as it boosts regional development and increases popular participation locally.

The eliminated duality of local power – elected mayor vs. elected governor – paved the way for broad consolidation of regional elites around the elected governor. The research conducted by the Social Project Institute has recently revealed that the region becomes an economically viable local «development corporation» when the governor’s team advances a solid socio-economic program. Naturally, other regions tend to learn from successful experience and follow suit.

Building institutional foundation for direct and deliberative democracy was also part of the municipal reform. The law provides for specific mechanisms to take local public opinion into account, such as hearings, social councils, referendums etc.

PS: But all these institutions exist merely on paper, don’t they? Especially at the lowest level, at the municipal level.

AZ: That is true. There is a controversy in the matter as the institutional background has already been formed, but the political principles are not yet applied. Now these mechanisms are rather formal and cater for the needs of the most powerful actors. I believe that the task for the not-too-distant future is to make these mechanisms function, thus, marrying the theory and practice.

It seems possible to overcome the resistance. The contradiction we have just discussed makes the demand for the grassroots’ participation even stronger. There are also some federal institutions and mechanisms which may contribute to deliberative and direct democracy on the ground. I mean the mechanisms created before the 2012 comprehensive reform. They include public chambers and ombudsmen as well as the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a traditional mechanism of the media and, lastly, a unique institution of All-Russia People’s Front (known as the ONF), established in 2011 on Vladimir Putin’s initiative.

PS: For all that direct democracy mechanisms are successfully applied in some regions, governors put strong emphasis on the matter, while in most regions it is but sham. The ONF had to remedy the situation, debugging the system in a manual mode and ensuring social mobility for regional activists, rather than staunchly loyal supporters of a local governor. Is it normal when the initiative is introduced and promoted from above?

AZ: The presidential power in Russia is like a daisy. There is a center and many petals in the form of advisory and deliberative bodies. All of them are integral to deliberative democracy at the federal level. The task is to bring this model to the regions. It does not really matter who set up the initiative. Following the tradition, it mostly starts from above. More importantly, the viable institutions and mechanisms emerge only when they receive keen support.

Initially, the Public Chamber was established as a federal body on the President’s initiative. After the reform, local public chambers play the decisive role in shaping it. Opinion internet polls also matter. Recently local public councils, which are affiliated to federal ministries and departments and institutionally linked to the Public Chamber, have also undergone a reform, which has rendered them more viable. Moreover, the Law on Public Control has been enacted to create the institutional background for uninterrupted public participation in decision-making and policy-shaping. This is an essential step forward.

The ONF was also established by the President at the federal level only to be set up in regions later on. Alexander Brechalov is now a co-chair of the ONF Central Headquarters as well as the Secretary of the Public Chamber. We can witness mutual reinforcement of the two mechanisms, the Public Council and the ONF. Now they work separately but in close cooperation, training a new generation of civil activists to serve in municipal bodies, NGOs, local self-government bodies, to “restart” regional public chambers, and to be elected in single-member constituencies.

How deep the roots are

PS: Let’s resume our talk about the party system. The so-called party filters were introduced to force parties to work on the ground, to gain support from below, and to draw up the local and regional agenda. The reward is an opportunity to take part in top-level elections without collecting signatures of its electors. But even the parties of the Great Tetrad lack local well-trained staff. So what has the “root-taking” of parties led to?

AZ: We are studying a long-lasting process, and it is imprudent to expect an immediate result. The local agenda is quite peculiar and it is difficult, if not impossible, to integrate it into the platform. Most local issues are caused by administrative problems rather than ideology. There exist serious obstacles to the «root-taking» of political parties.

However, regional municipal workers must be accountable. Elections are a way to ensure accountability. Moreover, the parties must be represented at the regional level as it serves as an accountability mechanism. But they should act as managers rather than promote ideologies and expound doctrines.

Public self-government constitutes a vital part of the reform at the local level. These are separate institutions, which are different from municipal self-government bodies and are not affiliated to them. They include territorial public self-government and village heads and wardens. Unless we engage enthusiastic individuals, the municipal reform would fall into an institutional trap – the situation when decision-making would be controlled by a small coterie and would be separated from the grassroots.

PS: The 2012 protests unlocked considerable potential of active citizens, in Moscow as well as elsewhere. However, are there any political instruments of promoting them further, say, to the federal level? For instance, will the mixed member proportional system allow numerous new politicians and activists to get elected to the State Duma in 2016?

AZ: If an electoral system becomes more consistent with common people’s preferences, it implies much scope for different forms of political participation ranging from casting ballots to direct popular involvement. Actually, new communication channels for active citizens have been established including the Russian Public Initiative (ROI) and the mechanism of incorporating professionals into the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. Moreover, electoral instruments have improved. For instance, I am speaking about early voting and single-member constituencies. A more intense competition also enables Russians to influence decision-making. Indeed, I suppose there is a reasonable probability that the 2016 parliamentary elections slated for this autumn will experience the emergence of fresh politicians and activities. What is more, we are likely to see not only new political figures, but also representatives of a new political generation which has been forming for 15 years.

“Not a Place for Discussions” 

PS: But still, can we say that the newly elected State Duma will comprise deputies of more ideological and political stripes, or Russia’s parliament will be largely homogenous because the parties will subject all representatives from single-member districts to party discipline?

AZ: Even though most independent candidates are affiliated to political parties, single-member districts will render the new Duma far more representative and diverse. It will be the case even if the lower chamber is made up of the mainstream parties. Single-winner voting can help small parties’ leaders get their mandates, which will also increase party representation.

It is time for a new narrative about the role of plurality winners. Earlier deputies who got office under the party list system were generally believed to be just “party elites’ puppets”, whereas individual candidates were treated as real “public servants”. However, it is false. We have witnessed too many cases of the kind.

Individual politicians elected as representatives of political parties and those who will join parliamentary factions after voting are sure to bring considerable benefits to the electorate than lone wolves. Only groups tend to have a say in the State Duma, whereas individuals with no party affiliation fail to honor their commitments. Moreover, they become sitting ducks for interest groups that also exert influence on the Duma.

While drafting new bills, the State Duma engages various experts to adequately cater for popular demands. People who have managed to establish themselves as reputable and qualified pundits are essential for parties and the State Duma. It is far from certain that they will manage to gain votes in their constituencies. In this case, it is quite reasonable to have both the party-list proportional representation and the single-member plurality system, because as parts of the mixed model they will contribute to the elections.

We have yet to arrive at a clear understanding of how our legislature should work. Boris Gryzlov’s famously stated that “parliament is not a place for discussion”. How did Russia’s mass media, experts and progressive forces respond to that? I believe everybody is well aware of the consequences for Mr. Gryzlov, aren’t they? Meanwhile, Russia’s politician just echoed the idea expressed in a book by Bernard Manin, a contemporary scientist specializing in representative democracy. Actually, he held the same opinion as Gryzlov that is “all parliaments except the US Congress are not places for deliberations”. Parliaments tend to witness the clash of different conflicting interests. There can be fierce disagreements at preliminary discussions rather than parliamentary sessions. They go on in factions and are not made public. In fact, Gryzlov rather than his vocal critics was talking sense.

PS: To my mind, a lack of narrowly focused specialists in today’s State Duma is evident. However, deputies are challenged to respond to a different request. Russian society wants the parliament to consistently oppose a range of ill-conceived decisions taken by the government through voting rather than just verbally. For instance, everybody tends to slash education or healthcare reforms and economic policies are subject to vigorous debate, but party allegiance makes deputies endorse every governmental initiative.

AZ: This problem is perennial. Our parliament is not directly involved in forming the cabinet, like in other modern states. This approach questions the need to promote the partization of the government, thus, creating relevant accountability and responsiveness mechanisms. In its turn, it will empower the State Duma. Firstly, I would hold that such measures boost our prospects. Secondly, the 2012-2014 comprehensive reform may be regarded as a step towards achieving this end. Thirdly, if we carefully examine the changing relations between the pre-reform Duma majority and the government, we will recall some striking cases when the majority was outspoken in its criticism. Moreover, they pressurized the ministers and did their best to push forward their agenda and make the government heed the public.

The earlier decisions also have a seminal influence on greater autonomy of the State Duma and a more accountable government. I mean the 2009 constitutional amendments which extended the presidential term and the deputies’ term from four to six and from four to five years, respectively. The side-effect includes the “de-concentration” of the federal electoral cycle.

Previously, a time gap between presidential and parliamentary elections was small, up to six months usually. And in fact the close link between presidential and parliamentary campaigns made the latter an integral part of the former, everything hinged on the voting for Russia’s President. Then the terms were extended, thus widening the gap between two voting procedures.

A new political foundation for a more autonomy of parliamentary elections was laid down. The agenda of the 2016 parliamentary elections is set independently with no regard to the 2018 presidential race. The 2016 parliament is likely to see most politicians backing Russia’s President but having different relations with the government. This new majority will be able to influence the cabinet’s composition and its policies. The ties between the Duma and the government as well as mutual accountability will be stronger. Let us recall that the 2009 amendments cannot be confined to the extended terms of the State Duma and the President.

PS: Moreover, a legally binding mechanism of accountability to the parliament was introduced.

AZ: This accountability mechanism operates nowadays, albeit largely on paper. Nevertheless, everybody is aware that there exist “dormant norms” which, however, can be actively exploited in the new political environment. Given the prerequisites for the new State Duma’s greater autonomy and its intense activity, we have all reasons to assume that the mechanism will acquire renewed importance and new meaning.

PS: In other words, it is important to mention that we have got institutional mechanisms at the ready to exploit them whenever necessary, isn’t it?

AZ: Yes, from the institutional perspective, these mechanisms exist, and it is a very important feature. A new practice, a habit takes shape. Deputies are used to the government’s accountability. Ministers, in their turn, get accustomed to the parliament’s scrutiny. Accidentally, such instruments exist on the regional scale.

On balance, the 2012-2014 big reform accompanied by the 2015 initiatives from civil society, along with the effects of the previous political and institutional decisions (above all, the 2009 amendments to the Constitution) pave the way for real political change from 2016 to 2018. Metaphorically speaking, dormant norms will awake. In this period, we will be able to witness substantial transformation in our political system as a whole.

A Set of Shared Beliefs and Values

PS: It turns out that public influence on public policies and ultimately the state’s subordination started to grow as early as in 2009, rather than in 2012. And processes will result in unforeseeable and incalculable events rather than the 2016 elections, won’t they?

AZ: These processes are underway, and they will take place for quite a long time. It is worth emphasizing that they are gradual or step-by-step. Generally speaking, the state has been subordinated to public policies formally since 2001 and in fact since the 2000 presidential elections. In 2001 the federal law on political parties was adopted even though none of the conventional political stakeholders was keen on it. But that was Vladimir Putin’s strategic choice of the country’s model of development. Moreover, it was a message that Russia’s President did not pursue only immediate goals. Rather, it became clear that the President took his decisions with regard to the long-term perspective.

A further result of the managed political transformation, ongoing since 2000, as I believe, will be normalized Russia’s presidential power.

PS: Do you imply Russia’s weakening presidential power or its reformed subordination to public policies?

AZ: Russia’s presidential power cannot be a weak institution; it cannot afford it. And if we are to speak about spheres supposed to be subordinate to public policies, I believe that presidential government meets this criterion best. Actually, I mean “normalization”. In this regard, certain steps have been taken so far. One of them was the 2008 managed reshuffling, when it was made clear to elites and citizens that presidents could come and go, while the regime itself survived. The second steps included the 2009 amendments to the Constitution. The 2012-2014 fundamental reform considerably upgraded the current political system by removing the need for the President to boost the effectiveness of other state institutions, namely the government, the State Duma and party systems. The comprehensive reform resulted in greater transparency, competition and increased representation upholding these institutions politically. Through stronger representation the reorganized Federation Council also plays a significant role. Russia’s power arrangements turn systemic as a more complicated division of labor is accompanied by growing interdependence. In future, the presidential burden can be eased by making a safety net for other institutions irrelevant while still delivering sustainable rule.

PS: As you have put it, not only does the President “keep key institutions functioning uninterruptedly”, but also sets the framework for political and party competition, which is vital for our unstable democracy. When we say that there is a pro-Putin majority, we mean that all political movements abide by sovereign national policies laid down by the current Head of the State. At a fundamental level, Vladimir Putin’s aspiration to create responsible elites serves long-term purposes and implies forming such a ruling class that will be able to maintain pluralism. At the same time, Russia’s civil society is exerting pressure on the state, thus making the elites realize their mission and responsibility.

AZ: It is so true. There is a good expression – “a set of shared ideas and beliefs”. Academic circles use the expression “normative and value consensus” instead. A close notion is a “new political language”, which is central to much contemporary debate. And there are two vital prerequisites. Firstly, we have started speaking about the rules of political competition defined by the general public rather than about closed-door deals introduced by the establishment. The President as a political leader accumulates, defines and responds to popular demands for patriotism and accountability. Secondly, we must mention legal bonds ensuring genuineness and reflecting political realities of “shared ideas and beliefs”.

The most apparent indicator of the elites’ nationalization is the prevalence of the elites’ home links over external relations. Broadly speaking, it is not geography or identities which make elites nationalized. These are close and binding ties with Russian society through elections, comprehensive consultations or direct democracy. That is the way to describe the final stage of the state’s subordination to the public. The 2012-2014 grand reform greatly contributed to our advancement towards this goal. And the 2016 electoral campaign may turn out to be a real test of endurance for our country.

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