The Electoral Agenda Still Contains a Major Issue of Civil Control Over Elections

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A special session of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights was held in Moscow. The participants dwelt on the electoral reform and, in particular, on the measures to make monitoring more transparent. Mikhail Fedotov, Head of the Council, made a number of proposals. He recalled the first Duma campaign of 1993, when disputes and controversies were resolved through arbitration, and suggested reviving the procedure. The session also addressed various aspects of engaging citizens in monitoring. They embraced the idea of ​​social centres for election observation. Leonid Polyakov, member of the Council and Head of the Department of General Political Science in HSE, who also took part in the debate, comments ob the initiatives:

Numerous proposals to amend the existing electoral legislation were made at the meeting. But the key issue raised was public participation in monitoring. Under the current law, only political parties are entitled to observe the elections, members of the media can also be present at the polling stations, which is a major problem. There are many different non-governmental organizations which supervise voter registration efforts, one way or another, directly or indirectly, but without violating the law. Some propose allowing representatives of civil society to stay as legal observers and authorizing them to scrutinize the process rather than just oversee it in general.

Some suggest looking for alternative ways. In particular, Mikhail Fedotov, Head of the Council, recalled the early 1990s when arbitration was used to deal with contentious issues.He also put forward a proposal to create monitoring groups comprising locals who make up self-government bodies at the municipal level. Volunteers would supervise the electoral process at the local polling stations. In other words, elections would be observed by those who do want to engage in monitoring to prevent voter inaccuracy and malpractice and enhance the validity of elections.

This is a major dilemma. On the one hand, we receive proposals from various NGOs observing elections, and the electoral legislation could be amended for them to be granted observer status. On the other hand, we could appeal to the civil society in general. That is, to count on the civil society’s initiative in each municipality. As a result, citizens will have the right to set up their own observer groups and to be present at elections just like political parties and the media. I supported Fedotov‘s initiative.

As regards arbitration, I believe that this institution belongs to the remote past. That time was marked by seeking the optimal solution; therefore, such an agency operated effectively. Nevertheless, I think that nowadays we have made a considerable step forward. And I am not sure that arbitration can be relevant to the current state of affairs.

Moreover, it was proposed that representatives of regional public associations should be included in groups of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. I do not have any objections to this suggestion. On September 18, we are due to establish mobile monitoring groups. The more public organizations and such institutions as regional public associations take part in these groups’ activities, the more people trust such a monitoring system and the more effective local activists and civil society representatives, who tend to be concentrate in regional public associations, coordinate their policies.  

However, I consider today’s session to be the first stepping stone towards success in the long run. Provided the elections are held in three months’ time, it will be wrong to amend the legislation. The most recent amendments were adopted in April and the new package came into effect. From my perspective, this law is effective – it safeguards the rights of observers, who cannot be expelled from polling stations without court decision, and they are allowed to take pictures and video. In my opinion, currently we should not rush to make some dramatic transformations. But in 2017, especially against the background of the presidential elections, we need to take such measures which ensure that the civil society does not feel disconnected from the voting procedure and that the political establishment does not have exclusive access to decision-making. Thus, our meeting marks the beginning of outstanding and challenging work, which eventually should lead to producing a package of proposals. Traditionally, we will submit it to Russia’s President at a regular meeting scheduled for this fall.

These comments first appeared on Politanalitika

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