Russia’s Electoral System in 2011 and 2016: Road to Fair Political Competition and Legitimate Elections

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Alexander Pozhalov

Director for Research at ISEPR Foundation

Many foreign experts and observers studying the state and the evolution of the Russian political system as well as all the parties to the electoral process await the parliamentary ballot to be held on September 18. At the same time, many analysts vividly remember the 2011-2012 Bolotnaya Square protests provoked by the 2011 election results. Consequently, as the election day is approaching, the question about the lessons drawn by the regime and political system from the 2011 events is regularly raised.

The “You do not even represent us” slogan, one of the most popular mottos of Moscow’s protesters in December 2011, was directed at several target audiences. On the one hand, it was designed for the federal authorities, which, as many demonstrators and later pundits believed, had failed to anticipate the scale of popular anger caused by the 2011 electoral campaign and to imagine that infuriated citizens and the opposition would sharply demand fair and competitive elections.

On the other hand, this catchphrase also targeted the newly elected deputies, including those of the opposition parties who were speaking from the rallies’ rostrums at the time. But for a few cases, protesters did not regard such politicians as their legitimate representatives because in December 2011 liberal voters dissatisfied with the government were deprived of an opportunity to deliberately choose a liberal right-wing party. Moreover, they could not cast their ballots for an independent candidate in their single-member constituencies or influence the seven party lists. Actually, the 2011 parliamentary elections were conducted under the closed party-list proportional representation system. Liberal parties were denied the registration and could not restore it ahead of the elections (Vladimir Ryzhkov’s Republican Party of Russia and the People’s Freedom Party of Vladimir Ryzhkov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov) or they just lost their leaders at the eleventh hour. The Right Cause party is a vivid illustration as in September 2011 the party election convention ousted Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, and his supporters who could serve as fresh blood for the Parliament and take part in political competition as right-wing voters hoped. As a result, in metropolises liberal voters seeking a chance to voice their protest had to make the a contrario choice. Instead of voting for the ideologically close parties, they adopted the anything-but-United-Russia approach.

Thus, the “You do not even represent us” slogan clearly reflected the crisis of representative democracy and its political instruments in Russia. For this reason, greater transparency of government and the political system, the development of the public control system, and additional guarantees for political competition became central to Vladimir Putin’s manifesto at the 2012 presidential elections. After his victory they crystallized into the May inauguration decrees signed by the Russian President on May 7, 2012.

The recent four and a half years and the four cycles of regional elections have enabled the Russian establishment to get rid of most bottlenecks typical of the previous system of political participation.

Above all, the parliamentary voting process has fundamentally changed. A new State Duma will be elected under a mixed electoral system rather than a strict party-list one: half of the 450 seats in the Parliament would be filled through a proportional party-list system, with each party then filling its allotted seats, while the other half would be voted to power in single-member constituencies. In 2016 Russian voters, therefore, will be able to cast their ballots for a particular candidate in single-member districts as well as to lend their support to “their party”.

Currently potential candidates and most popular politicians are less dependent on parties’ establishment and conventions which are chiefly responsible for compiling party-lists. They are entitled to stand for elections as party candidates or self-nominated candidates, in case they collect signatures over 3 % of votes among local residents. Each entity, however numerically weak, will surely see its representative from a single-member district in a new State Duma. Moreover, he or she will be accountable to the region’s electorate rather than parties’ bosses.

The electoral threshold for party-lists eligible for the distribution of mandates under proportional representation became lower. In 2011 it constituted 7%. At the time few prospects of the “Yabloko” social liberal party in crossing the 7% threshold and the resulting real likelihood of losing votes pushed most liberal voters into supporting the ideologically alien CPRF and social-democrats from Just Russia, which, according to all opinion surveys, would be expected to get their seats in the Parliament. By 2016 the threshold had been lowered from 7% to 5% on the federal scale and at the level of regional elections.

Now there are increasingly more opportunities for political and public leaders, as well as groups of citizens to participate in party politics. By the 2011 parliamentary elections Russia had only had seven political parties. That was a direct consequence of the fact that several years earlier the mainstream Duma parties had voted for increasing the minimum number of party members to 40 thousand people, in other words, against their would-be rivals. As early as in 2009 seven national parties were stripped of their registration, with all their further efforts to get registered in vain. The only way to incorporate “new faces” into federal politics was to reach agreement with the leadership from one of seven qualified parties. Yet the fate of Mikhail Prokhorov’s party project convincingly demonstrated all the risks of such a partnership model. At the election convention the former leaders of the Right Cause party and the heads of its regional branches disavowed all the arrangements with Prokhorov. As many experts and the third-place finisher in the 2012 presidential elections believe, it was done with the approval of the then Kremlin sponsors of internal politics.

In this context, the government introduced a profound reform of party law in 2012. The proposed measures included reducing the number of members needed for a party to run to 500. The “protected” period within which a party cannot be dissolved by decision of a court in case of its non-participation in electoral campaigns at all the levels was extended from 5 to 7 years. Consequently, several dozens of political parties took part in the 2013 regional elections, even though most of them obtained very few votes. By the time the date of the 2016 parliamentary elections was set, there were 74 registered parties entitled to compete for the mandates in the Parliament. From these parties 49 organizations contested the regional and local elections on the single voting day in September 2015.

A more democratic registration of political parties has contributed to the virtual disappearance of the anti-system opposition. Even vocal critics of the regime and its policies, who could not register their parties under the previous regulations, have started to act on the legal ground. They involve the People’s Freedom Party or PARNAS headed by Mikhail Kasyanov, who tried to consolidate all the public protest activists led by Alexey Navalny under the brand of the “Democratic Coalition” ahead of the 2016 elections, the Democratic Choice Party with Vladimir Milov at the helm and some other small far-left parties.

In contrast to 2011, qualification requirements for non-parliamentary parties to run in Duma elections have become by far less strict in 2016. Unlike some Western democracies, political parties are not divided into regional and national in Russia. Any party with an official registration is entitled to nominate candidates both at the national level and in any region, even if the party has no regional office. In this regard, the qualification requirements system is needed at lower stages to decide who can run in the major elections. The formerly victorious parties are entitled to nominate candidates for the next election without additional requirements. Other small parties and new parties are obliged to prove that they have secured some support and collect a certain number of voters’ signatures.

In 2011 ballot access rules for a non-parliamentary party to become qualified and be entitled to run in elections without collecting signatures were virtually restrictive. Parties without seats in the State Duma were obliged to have deputies in a legislative body in at least 28 out of 83 Russian regions. None of the non-parliamentary parties had even been close to meeting these requirements. As a result, the three small parties which competed in 2011 collected 150 thousand signatures each. Non-parliamentary parties which did not have seats in the regional parliament were not eligible to fight regional and municipal elections without signatures (traditionally they had to collect from 1% to 2% of the number of voters).

In 2016 qualification requirements were considerably simplified. Non-parliamentary parties represented in at least one regional parliament (out of 85) were freed from collecting signatures to participate in the State Duma elections. Now parties are not obliged to be represented in regional legislative bodies to be able to run in local elections without signature collection. It is enough to win 3% of votes in the previous regional elections or to be represented in municipal councils in this region. There was also an additional “benefit” for small parties wishing to participate only in municipal elections without collecting signatures.

The new requirements created a lot more opportunities for small parties to participate in elections at various levels in the upcoming electoral cycle. In the 2016 general elections 14 political parties are spared the need to collect signatures, 10 of which are non-parliamentary ones across the ideological spectrum, ranging from the communists to pro-Western liberals (in 2011 only 4 parliamentary parties enjoyed the right). The ballot in 38 regions will take place alongside the State Duma Elections. At this level from 5 parties (elections to the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly) to 18 parties (elections to the People’s Assembly of the Republic of Dagestan) are exempt from collecting signatures. Even more parties stand to win from the new requirements at the municipal level. What is more, 74 registered candidates from all political parties can avoid the ordeal at the elections of mayors and heads of municipalities.

Over just a few years of the party system and electoral reform the quality of government and institutions has changed drastically ahead of the 2016 elections. The revived direct gubernatorial elections were a cornerstone of the 2012-2015 political reform. Note that in several regions, especially in the North Caucasus, regional leaders are elected by regional legislatures. On the eve of the 2011 parliamentary elections less than a half of the Russian regional heads had run successfully for office being elected governors in direct elections (before they were abolished in 2004), by regional legislatures or the State Duma in majority constituencies, mayors of cities and of municipal districts. The situation affected government adversely and was a reason for poor performance of the ruling party in the 2011 regional elections. At that time the governors topped the party lists. As a result, within six months after the 2011 general elections more than two dozen governors left office. On the eve of the 2016 federal election about 80% of the local heads of the executive branch have participated in direct majoritarian voting at various levels.

In addition, now all members of the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the “house of the federal subjects” – have to run in indirect elections. One of the three candidates included in the corresponding list in a popular vote becomes a senator. The senator has to be elected deputy of the respective regional legislatures first. The residency requirement has been imposed candidates must meet to represent a region. It has put an end to appointing Moscow lobbyists from big business or federal agencies.

Finally, ahead o]f the 2016 election the ruling party has made a major step towards rejuvenation, a higher level of preparedness to work with the electorate and openness of party competition to the public. Since 2007, the United Russia has been implementing a mechanism for internal primaries to select candidates to run in elections. But only in 2016 the party used the most open and democratic model of primaries. It allowed both party members and non-party candidates to fight for the right to be nominated. All voters regardless of their party affiliation as well as United Russia members and supporters were entitled to vote in the primaries. The preliminary voting campaign became the spring highlight for all political parties.

2777 candidates competed for the right to be included in the party list of 400 candidates or be nominated in one of the 225 single-member constituencies. The turnout was over 10.5 million (about 9.5% of the electorate) which is a lot higher than in 2011. Back then, 0.5% cast their ballots in the United Russia primaries. The campaign included two-month-long debates, rallies, and the drive to woo the electorate. Most regions saw a tough competition, with candidates running neck and neck. The primaries’ outcome clearly shows that no less than 40% of new members will join the ranks of United Russia in the State Duma. About a hundred incumbent deputies out of 238 either did not run in the primaries, or lost the fight and the right to be nominated or included in the party list of candidates.

The root-and-branch change which the Russian party and electoral system has undergone in 2011-2016, allows most observers to claim that ahead of the 2016-2018 federal electoral cycle all the institutional preconditions to guarantee open and fair competition have been created. Apart from institutional reforms there have been other significant transformations.

The Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation which is charged with organizing and conducting federal elections has revamped by two thirds. It is headed by Ella Pamfilova, a human rights activist and former chairman of the Civil Society Institution and Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation. She has an excellent reputation and weight among the ruling elite and the opposition. The ruling party no longer enjoys a monopoly on the image of Vladimir Putin, the megapopular national leader. Representatives of over 20 political parties engage in the work of the All-Russian People’s Front, the new movement headed by Vladimir Putin. Its activists are nominated by various political groups, not only the United Russia (as it was the case in 2011). Trying to get rid of the negative image of the party of power and allegations of using administrative resources, United Russia rejected the traditional strategy of including federal ministers and most governors in the electoral list. Thus, Russian observers mostly agree that by the end of September a more representative, professional and multiparty legislative body will emerge.

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