Rethinking Russia Expert, Professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent
Russia goes to the polls on 18 September 2016. Not only will the seventh convocation of the State Duma be chosen, but 38 regional legislatures and eight regional governors will also be selected, and there will also be municipal elections.
The 2011-12 electoral cycle provoked a tumultuous period of contentious politics, but it is unlikely that the forthcoming elections will be accompanied by anything like as much controversy. This is for a number of reasons. First, the presidential elections are now decoupled from the parliamentary ones, thus removing the ‘primary’ element from the parliamentary poll. The presidential elections are now slated for March 2018. Second, the political reforms launched in the wake of the turbulence of 2011 now make it much easier to create political parties. Today 77 parties are registered, and at least 14 (compared to seven in 2011) will contest the national elections – these are the 14 that have the automatic right to contest elections because they have seats in regional or national legislatures. It is unlikely that any parties who have to take the signature route will be registered to contest the Duma election. Third, the dual system has now been restored, and 225 candidates will be elected in single-mandate constituency seats, and 225 through proportional representation (PR). The PR part of the election is based on a closed voter list system – with candidates selected by the party leadership. Nevertheless, the restoration of the dual system has altered the whole dynamic of the election, including giving popular independent candidates the chance to be elected to the Duma. Fourth, contentious politics has now been effectively brought into the ambit of party politics. The forthcoming elections look as if they will be the most competitive and transparent in a long time.
One sign of this is the use of the institution of primaries. Primaries were already used in regional elections in 2012, and in this electoral campaign they will applied more systematically. Not only are primaries used by United Russia (UR), but also the ‘Democratic Coalition’ created on the basis of PARNAS in Spring 2015, bringing together the Solidarnost movement, Alexei Navalny’s unregistered Party of Progress, and some others. Because of Boris Nemtsov’s seat in the Yaroslavl regional assembly, PARNAS has the automatic right to participate in the Duma elections.
Although similar in form, the two sets of primaries are very different in substance. For UR, primaries are a way of engaging regional elites and involving them in the electoral campaign. Above all, primaries are a way of selecting PR candidates for the regional lists. In America, primaries are used as a way of exercising the control of grass roots activists over the party elites, whereas in Russia primaries have the opposite effect – creating yet another mechanism for elites to manage grass-roots activism. The elites seek to select not only the most effective candidates, but at the same time the primaries are a mechanism to remove potential candidates who are not considered appropriate. This is a top-down filter mechanism that endows the selection process with greater legitimacy.
In UR, primary candidates create regional organisational committees comprising local UR branches, UR supporters and representatives of civic associations (at least 30%) and media figures. The lists are confirmed by a special national organisational committee. By mid-April 2016 over 3,200 candidates had applied to participate in the primaries, of whom 1,437 were non-party. Of these, 2,907 had been registered, of whom 1,208 were non-party. In the single-mandate seats 1,393 candidates had been registered, while another 1,514 were fighting to be nominated by UR to enter the Duma lists. Most surprisingly, 193 existing MPs applied to participate in the UR lists for the State Duma. In addition, over 330 people applied to participate in the UR primaries to enter the Moscow City Duma. On average six candidates per district fought to be adopted by UR, with the most competitive UR primaries in Sakhalin, followed by Mari El, Vladimir and Moscow oblasts, where some 13 candidates were registered. In the UR primaries in Moscow city some 20 candidates fought for the privilege of representing UR in the City Duma.
United Russia nevertheless runs some risks in running primaries. Although it is well- endowed with staff, finances and has a powerful brand image, the pre-electoral primary campaign risks alienating voters. On the other hand, PARNAS has used the primary campaign to make itself better known in the regions. However, it also runs risks, notably exposing its relatively weak voter base, as well as the severe divisions in its leadership. Low participant registration forced PARNAS to postpone its primaries until enough had registered. In addition, the top three positions on the party list were to be chosen without primaries. Mikhail Kasyanov was designated to head the list, but following a personal scandal (exposed on NTV) his position was challenged. Ilya Yashin called for his removal from first place, arguing that placing Kasyanov in first place without a primary was a mistake. Navalny’s supporters sought to use the primaries to consolidate their position in the coalition, although Navalny himself could not stand because of his criminal conviction. Already some of the leading liberal politicians, such as Gennady Gudkov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, had left and planned to fight the elections with Yabloko.
Although primaries are becoming an established part of the Russian electoral scene, not all parties are using the mechanism. For the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), under its veteran leader Gennady Zyuganov, primaries are anathema to the party’s highly centralised leadership system. The party did experiment with the system of ‘people’s levy’ in 2011, but this was soon abandoned when Zyuganov realised that this could provide an alternative mechanism for leadership advance and a platform from which to challenge his dominance. The same applies to the LDPR, still based on the charismatic authority of its long-term and unique leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As for Just Russia, this is a quasi-leaderist party dominated by Sergei Mironov and Nikolai Levichev, and as far as they are concerned primaries are totally superfluous. For them it is not the popularity of the candidate that is important, but their ability to buttress the power of the leadership.
Overall, the primary system is intended to endow national and regional elections with greater legitimacy. If a sufficiently high proportion of electors participate in the primaries, then the national elections on 18 September will gain a degree of legitimacy even before a single vote has been cast in the national ballot. The primaries, however, are a two-edged sword, exposing the divisions within the Democratic Coalition and the managerial systems within UR. Ultimately, it is the ballot box that will decide the country’s fate, but the road to the ballot box this year is proving to be of exceptional interest.