October 24, 2016

2016 could be the moment of truth for Russia's political system


With Russia running elections in 83 out of 85 regions on Sept. 13 and significant attempts by the Kremlin to manage the democratic process within Russia, there is growing concern that the 2016 Duma elections might finally expose the weaknesses of the ruling party.

The moment of truth, avoidable this year, could fall right on the eve of the elections to the federal parliament. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Sept. 13 Russia will run elections in 83 out of 85 regions, which gives a good reason to think over the nature of Russia's political system. Developed democracies, in which the procedures are defined but the results uncertain, are the mirror image of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the procedures are constantly revised in order to guarantee a foreordained outcome.

Ever since Putin came to power, no parliamentary election in Russia has been held according to the same rules as its predecessor. On each occasion without fail, significant changes have been made to the legislation.

First up was the nationwide introduction of a proportional representation system with a simultaneous reduction in the number of participating parties. This was to ensure the dominant position of United Russia in parliaments of all levels across the country. After the excessive fervor with which the authorities tried to ensure maximum votes for the “party of power,” leading to a wave of protests in 2011-12, the decision was taken to change tactics.

The so-called “party reform” lifted the restrictions on the creation and registration of political parties. As a result, their number increased by an order of magnitude — from seven in 2011 to 78 in 2015. Moreover, in 2012-2013 all these parties were allowed to compete in elections without having to collect signatures from the electorate (previously only parliamentary parties were exempt from the rule).

At the same time, the Kremlin decided to abandon the universal introduction of proportional representation. Most significantly, the Moscow and St. Petersburg City Dumas were allowed to hold elections solely under a majority system. The authorities believed that the proportional system had swung too much in favor of United Russia’s opponents. Gubernatorial elections were also reinstated. However, candidates had to pass through the “municipal filter,” which meant enlisting the support of a certain number of municipal deputies, most of who are under the strict control of the executive.

Whereas before, regional authorities would nonchalantly engineer maximum turnout (uncast ballots were generally awarded to United Russia), starting in 2012 pre-election campaigns have quietly come on-stream, so to speak. A single nationwide voting day was scheduled specially for the second Sunday of September, since most Russians are at the dacha or on vacation in summer. That significantly reduced turnout, but the calculation was that opposition supporters would ignore the elections, while state employees (teachers, doctors, civil servants) would obediently come out and vote for the “right” candidates.

With a few rare exceptions, the tactic can be said to have paid off. Turnout was indeed very low, and all regions holding gubernatorial elections posted wins for Putin’s erstwhile appointees, while United Russia retained control of all regional and municipal assemblies bar none. In the main, the newly formed parties took votes not from the “party of power,” but from the parliamentary opposition, i.e. the Communist Party (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and A Just Russia.

But most such parties had been set up for that explicit purpose and registered without any hitch, while genuine opposition groups found the process very difficult or even prohibitive (Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Progress Party, for instance, was barred from the elections and later deprived of its registration).

Beginning in 2014, the “party reform” took a new turn: parties without representation in regional parliaments were again required to collect signatures from the electorate in support of their nomination. This greatly reduced the number of participants in the elections under the proportional system, mainly genuine opposition parties (spoiler parties were not impeded).

The same model is being applied to the current regional elections. The four parliamentary parties (United Russia, CPRF, LDPR, A Just Russia) qualify by default. No particular obstacles have been put in the way of Patriots of Russia (a spoiler against the Communist Party) or the left-liberal Yabloko, which owes its privileged position to the fact that it will help keep the Russian liberal movement split for some time to come. Various spoiler projects are also on the ballot paper.

But the Democratic Coalition — an informal bloc of liberal parties campaigning under the brand of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS) — has faced all sorts of barriers. Besides PARNAS, the coalition includes four other parties, including Navalny’s Progress Party. To all appearances, it is the non-systemic liberal movement that the Kremlin fears the most.

Of the three regions or oblasts in which the Democratic Coalition decided to run for parliament (Novosibirsk, Kaluga and Kostroma), its list of candidates was registered only in the latter, because that is where its chances are considered minimal: Most of the inhabitants of the Kostroma region live in villages, while liberals in Russia generally only make inroads in cities, and large ones at that.

Yet it was not just the liberals who encountered hurdles, but some “patriots” too. A number of regions refused to register the party lists of pro-Kremlin Rodina, the higher-ups evidently having decided that the party would not spoil the opposition, but instead, United Russia.

It seems that the authorities will once again carry the day: United Russia is set to secure a majority everywhere, with CPRF, LDPR and A Just Russia the only other representatives in the regional and local assemblies. The success of other party players will be incidental and inconclusive. But if the scenario does not play out as planned, it will be a wake-up call for the Kremlin — if the vehicle rolled out in 2012-14 starts to splutter, a new one will be urgently required.

However, even if the engine is still running smoothly, does that mean it can be used at next year’s elections to the State Duma? After all, that was very much the reckoning when the vote was moved from December 2016 to September 2016.

It is hard to say. The country has entered a protracted economic crisis, and so far the Kremlin has only contained public dismay over declining living standards by expending former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s accumulated reserves and diverting attention to Ukraine and “Western plots.” But if the reserves dry up in the coming year, and the shine comes off the propaganda machine, then anything could happen; the moment of truth, avoidable this year, could fall right on the eve of the elections to the federal parliament.

In other words, there is the risk (for many, the hope) that the dress rehearsal of the profanity that post-Soviet Russia calls “elections” could itself become an profanity.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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