The symbolic appointment of a well-known human rights ombudswoman, Ella Pamfilova, as the new head of Russia’s Central Election Commission indicates that the Kremlin is quite serious about making the results of the upcoming parliamentary elections as legitimate as possible.

Ella Pamfilova, a new head of the Central Election Committee of Russia, during the first meeting of the committee's new composition. Photo: RIA Novosti

Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s former Ombudswoman for Human Rights, could become the symbol of fair parliamentary elections in Russia, scheduled on September, 2016: Russians will go to the polls to cast their votes for deputies of the State Duma. Experts agree that, as the newly appointed head of the Central Election Commission (CEC), she will be able to build a working rapport with Russian liberals and, therefore, do well in the new position. 

On Monday, Mar. 28, the CEC met for the first time since Pamfilova's appointment. She promised that the CEC would stop being "a mechanical body that just abides by legal norms" and that the Commission's operations would become more transparent. She also pointed out that the new staff would have to "hit the ground running."

Before assuming her position with the Commission, Pamfilova served as a human rights advocate and recently presented another report on the observance of human rights in Russia. Previously, she had various duties ranging from being a legislator in the State Duma to working as the Minister of Social Protection within the Russian Government.  

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Pamfilova’s reputation precedes her

Pamfilova's appointment as the CEC head came as no surprise to many election process participants and political scientists. Experts are positive that Pamfilova is the perfect choice for restoring faith in Russia’s elections and their results. 

"Commissions are formed for a period of time, and now it is time for the CEC lineup to get some new people. Vladimir Churov, former CEC head, is leaving. In fact, he discredits the very history of parliamentary elections. Churov’s tenure saw a number of alleged violations and falsifications, especially during the 2011 parliamentary campaign that led to large-scale protests at Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow, which turned into a robust protest movement.

"His tenure has been linked to plenty of scandals, so it makes sense that he is gone. There is a clear understanding of the need to change things up. It is necessary to amend the situation, including the public perception of elections and lack of trust in existing political parties," says Arkady Lyubarev, an expert with the European Platform for Democratic Elections.

"The CEC needs changing. It requires someone who can drive the change and has the trust of various social strata. Ella Pamfilova is the best person for the job," the expert adds.

Elena Shestopal, the chair of the Political Psychology Department at Moscow State University, believes that currently Pamfilova's reputation as a human rights advocate is of paramount importance.

Shestopal thinks that the new CEC head's good standing is a message from the authorities to all participants of the new electoral cycle, "Look, we are appointing a new honest person who is going to watch over the elections."

Shestopal further explains that, "In light of the upcoming start of the new election cycle, this logic is determined by the likelihood of clashes between non-systemic opposition and the government along with all kinds of complaints and grievances from those who obviously will not be able to win a parliamentary seat."

Shestopal strongly believes that Russia's leadership will do its best to restore faith in elections in all parties to the process.  

"It is quite interesting that the President sent similar messages much earlier, but they were met with bewilderment, mostly at the regional level. Officials there never got used to utilizing the administrative resource, so this message stunned them," she points out.

Alexey Mukhin, the director general of the Center for Political Information, is of a different opinion. He supports a simpler explanation: Pamfilova and Churov just decided to swap their career tracks and struck a deal. There is nothing complicated about it. 

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"We should not discard the motivation that is right there on the surface. Vladimir Churov and Ella Pamfilova were only looking for ways to change things up a bit. Due to their line of work, they knew each other fairly well. Obviously, Pamfilova could apply herself in this position," he says. 

"At the same time, it would be difficult to imagine Pamfilova accepting a regular position with the CEC," Mukhin adds. He believes that her main asset is her ability to negotiate.

"She has one valuable advantage, which is her ability to negotiate with the liberal wing of the political spectrum. Thus, there are both political and technical reasons for the new appointment," the expert concludes.

How Pamfilova can restore trust in the electoral process

It is not so much Pamfilova's ability to negotiate as her ability to listen that is her main advantage, according to Lyubarev. "Knowing how to come to an agreement is secondary to being a good listener and understanding what the liberals have to say," the expert points out.

However, the trust in Pamfilova can quickly run out if she fails to improve the electoral process.

"She is not the one to create just a semblance of progress. Most likely, Pamfilova will engage in actual change. The most important aspect would be opting for another operating style. The CEC plays a major part in both federal and regional elections,” says Lyubarev.

Lyubarev suggests some changes we might see in the upcoming election: “Core changes that are absolutely essential have to do with candidate registration and working with observers. Therefore, it is necessary to introduce new approaches to the registration of candidates. This election, we will have 225 single-seat constituencies, and none are immune to conflicts. Candidacy confirmations on grounds of signature sheets are particularly vulnerable.”

“If the CEC takes the candidates' side and protects them from the local authorities, it could make a big difference. Under Churov, rapport with observers was lost. It would be a good idea to restore it," Lyubarev explains.