Russian elections: Kremlin sees need of more credibility and pluralism

by Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

On 18 September, the Russians will vote to elect new parliamentary deputies, including four to represent Crimea. Foreign analysts have tended to treat the elections dismissively because of the limited role of the Duma in political life. But in fact they are the focus of an important shift in interest on the part of the Kremlin.

The 1993 Constitution, voted after president Yeltsin sent tanks to subdue rebellious deputies barricaded in the parliament building, set up a presidential regime. Its shape was inspired by the French and the American constitutions – with the serious handicap that it never included the accompanying democratic checks and balances.

As a result, successive presidents have used and abused their constitutional power in a system dominated by the executive, where all major political and economic decisions are elaborated and taken inside the presidential administration.

Parliament has become chamber for validation and public debate, but with no real power of initiative. Nevertheless, its composition still matters, like that of parliamentary commissions, because it gives an indication of the country’s political balance. Hence its importance to observers both in Russia and abroad.

The forthcoming elections are special because there are many signs that the Kremlin got a lesson in 2001, when the results of the elections were so obviously fraudulent that the opposition managed to gather thousands of people to protest in the centre of Moscow. And , for the first time, there were often crude attacks on the person of the President, notably when demonstrators carried pictures of Vladimir Putin headed with a condom.

This time, parliamentary and presidential elections are being totally separated. A decree of September 2015 provides for advanced elections to the Duma from December to September, while presidential elections will be held in 2018.

This altogether changes the role of parliamentary elections. As from 1993, they served as a curtain-raiser for the ‘real’ election, i/e. that of the president a few months later. They were used to ensure a comfortable majority for whatever was the ‘party of power’ at the time and to show in advance who would be the presidential winner. Now they are something quite separate – witness a change of emphasis, involving the legitimization of the electoral process and results.

To this effect, the rules for registration of parties and of candidates has been simplified, meaning 21 instead of seven contesting parties. Other reforms intended to increase competition and effective representation include the reintroduction of a mixed electoral system (cancelled in 2007). Of the 450 seats, half will be elected by a proportional vote from party lists, with a 5% electoral threshold at federal level, and half in single member constituencies on a first-past-the-post system.

A new document

The discredited former head of the Electoral Commission has been replaced by Ella Pamfilova, the respected Commissioner for Human Rights who has asserted her mission to preside over fair elections. Former prime minister Mikhail Kasianov, now a leader of the opposition party PARNAS, has taken part in a live debate on state television. United Russia has organized primaries open to any citizen. And Kremlin strategists have published a document entitled “Principles of the electoral campaign: legitimacy of institutions, political governance, and decriminalization of elections”.

The last should restrain local authorities inclined to show their political devotion by manipulating ballots and vote-counting.

In parallel, president Putin has launched an anti-corruption move reaching the highest circles of power, and has replaced a series of governors and directors of federal agencies, and even the head of the presidential administration.

The most surprising part of the Kremlin’s new attitude is that it seems to have distanced itself from a Soviet mind-set whereby the level of voters’ participation was taken as a sign of vitality of the political system, even if one had to doctor the figures.

But after a series of painful defeats during the latest regional elections, and a sharp fall of United Russia’s popularity, strategists have realized that the ‘good’ voters mobilized at great effort by United Russia volunteers can change their mind in the polling booth and vote for the ‘wrong’ party.

Also, with the growth of a deeply depoliticized electorate, most Russians are rebuffed by huge demonstrations because they fear violence in the streets and do not trust the opposition parties who call the demonstrations. At the same time, they do mobilize for local issues such as safeguarding a forest or an historical building, or for better infrastructures and public transport, and denounce increases in municipal services, and of course corruption. What is called ‘horizontal democracy’.

Only one party could be a credible opposition

In fact, there is only one party whose return to the Duma could provide Putin with a credible opposition. This is Yabloko – the oldest and the most politically coherent opposition party, which has remained under the same leader, Grigori Yavlinsky, since 1993. Yabloko learned the lessons of the post 2011-2012 drop in the effectiveness of opposition protests. Without deserting Moscow and St Petersburg, it has organised a network of regional and local sections attuned to the real needs of the population. But it has to go alone to the elections because opposition pre-election meetings have all too often turned into the classical fights between opposition’s leaders.

Once again, they turn out to be their own worst enemies, through recklessness or miscalculation. The latest being the huge gaffe of the ex-oligarch Mikhaïl Khodorkovsky, who was till recently seeming to promise new impulsion for the opposition.

Khodorkovsky was allowed to finance 18 candidates as part of his Open Russia initiative. But then, a week before election day, he announced that his organisation was seeking to find the next President through a project called ‘Instead of Putin’. He excluded his own candidacy, but provided a list of 13 people. Nominated without being consulted, a number immediately called for the withdrawal of their names, knowing that their inclusion was the kiss of the death.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *