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Edwin Bacon

Last week I had the privilege of talking to Birkbeck’s new undergraduate politics students. These guys are serious about politics. Serious enough to take on debt, move house, give up their evenings, and so on, to study politics. Serious enough to know what’s going on in the world. When I asked how many of them knew that there had been a parliamentary election in Russia a week or so ago, I would say that about a quarter raised their hands. When I asked how many of them knew who had won the election, more than half raised their hands. So, if even people who didn’t know there was an election, knew that Putin’s party had won it, what was the point of Russia’s parliamentary election?

Russia’s Electoral System

The Duma (lower house of parliament) has 450 seats. For this election, 225 deputies were  chosen under a party list system, with all parties getting over 5% of the nationwide party list vote receiving a corresponding proportion of the 225 seats. The other 225 seats were allocated in constituencies, under a first-past-the-post system. There is no connection between votes cast for the party list and votes cast for the constituency candidates.

Fourteen parties took part in the elections. The four listed in Table One gained sufficient votes to share 448 of the seats. The other two were won in constituencies by a couple of minor parties (‘Motherland’ and ‘Civic Platform’). For details of all the parties and the electoral process, see this pre-election briefing from the European Parliament.

Table One. Results of Russia’s Duma Election, 18 September 2016 (showing only those parties passing the 5% threshold for seats under the proportional representation half of the ballot).

Party PR share % PR seats Single Seats Total Seats % Total Seats
United Russia 54 140 203 343 76
CPRF 13 35 7 42 9
LDPR 13 34 5 39 9
A Just Russia 6 16 7 23 5

The unchanging state of Russia’s elections

Adam Przeworski wrote in 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed, that ‘democracy is a system in which parties lose elections’. That’s a pretty good definition.

A couple of years after the Soviet collapse, I was an official election observer at Russia’s first post-Soviet general election. I was in the city of Kursk, in the bitter December cold, with a British MP. We were miffed to discover that we’d scarcely had time to file our report before the leader of the UK observer mission announced the elections ‘free and fair’. It was always clear that the findings of that observer mission would be positive, as there was widespread enthusiasm for the notion that Russia had joined the democratic camp of countries.

The surprise ‘winner’ in terms of the party-list popular vote in 1993 was the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his so-called ‘Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’  – though the presidential constitution and the mixed ‘party-list and constistuencies’ electoral system meant that he won only notoriety, not power, and his party came second behind the pro-presidential party in terms of numbers of seats. In third place came the Communist Party, just a few seats behind Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party. The Communist leader was Gennady Zyuganov.

What have these reminiscences of 1993 got to do with the Duma elections of 2016?

Simply this. If you had told me then that 23 years later the president’s party of power would still be coming first in elections with the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party finishing almost neck and neck in second and third place, I would have concluded that Russian democracy had spent nearly a quarter of a century becoming moribund.

If you had further told me that 23 years later the seemingly ageless Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov would still be leading their parties, I might have concluded that Russian democracy was not moribund, but dead.

Would I have been right?

There certainly is a sense in which little changes in the Duma elections.  In last month’s elections, the president’s party – United Russia – won. Just as in the previous two elections (2007 and 2011), only the same four parties gained any real presence in the parliament (United Russia, the Communist Party, the misnamed right-wing nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and the regime-friendly left-ish party ‘A Just Russia’). As usual, Chechnya voted 96% for the president’s party. As usual, United Russia drew up a list of candidates headed by ‘big names’ who had no intention of taking up their seats.

The ever-changing Russian electoral system

But let’s not say that nothing changes.  After all, Russia’s elections are in constant flux. Every election brings multiple rule-changes, new procedures, new refinements to make things run better. Or at least to makes things run in a regime-friendly way.

The term of office for the deputies elected in 1993 was two years. After that elections went to a four year cycle, the same as the presidential term. Until 2011 when parliamentary elections changed to every five years, and the presidential term to six years. So 2016’s parliamentary plebiscite was Russia’s first ‘mid-term’ election, with the next presidential vote due in 2018. Though the discrepancy in term lengths means that mid-terms will not continue to be the norm, as in another 20 years both presidential and parliamentary elections will take place together – if we make the unlikely assumption that the electoral rules will not be changed again in the meantime.

What else changed this time round? For the first time in the post-Soviet era, the elections were not held on a Sunday in December, but on a Sunday in September. Low turn-out has already led to the suggestion that next time round, parliament will be elected in April, on a weekday.

As for the electoral system itself, between 1993 and 2003 the 450 seats in the Duma were filled by a half single-mandate, half proportional combination. That changed in 2007 and 2011 to an entirely proportional, party-list vote in order ‘to strengthen Russia’s party system’, since independents won more than 100 seats in 2003.

Now, having established a stable group of ‘parliamentary parties’, the electoral system has reverted back to the previous 50:50 mix. This has had beneficial results for the ruling regime. United Russia won 60% of its seats from the single-mandate constituencies.

The revival of single-mandate constituencies also gives structure to the ruling ‘power vertical’, that is, the connections by which the Kremlin sees its authority carried across Russia’s vast territory.  None of the opposition parties has a concentration of support anywhere, as the few constituencies that they won are spread out. For example, there is one seat each in Moscow and St Petersburg for both the Communists and ‘A Just Russia’. The degree of local control in particular regions can also be seen by the clustering of continuing deputies. There are no new United Russia deputies at all in Tatarstan’s constituencies, ditto in Tversk, and almost all deputies in the Voronezh region remained in place.

Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC) made mention of Voronezh when she talked about several examples of electoral malpractice that came to light. It is possible to spend a fascinating half hour or so watching such examples on Youtube, thanks to Russia’s practice of having live webcams in all polling booths and using transparent plastic ballot boxes. It is less possible, however, to be sure of the extent to which electoral fraud shaped the final results. Pamfilova bemoans the fact that the CEC headquarters cannot remove CEC regional heads, as this is in the remit of the governors.

 What do the numbers tell us?

Apart from the results themselves, the two stand-out numbers from the Duma election relate to turnout and turnover.

  • The 48% turnout represents the lowest in post-Soviet Russia’s national elections. Turnout was especially low in big cities, notably Moscow and St Petersburg. Such low turnout reflects well a lacklustre campaign, where few people doubted the identity of the eventual winners. If the result is so predictable, then why bother voting?
  • A remarkable 49% of the deputies elected to Russia’s Duma on 18 September are new to parliament. For half of all members of parliament to be new to the role means that there are plenty of fresh faces coming into Russian politics. The figure is higher still if we consider only the president’s party, United Russia, which has 204 new deputies, 60% of its cohort.

A notable trend in Russian politics over the past few months has been the renewal of the presidential cadre, with some well-known, long-standing associaties of President Putin moved out of their positions. In their place come younger people, who are more clearly protégées, rather then colleagues. Previous practice shows that the parliament serves as a talent pool for the president’s team. Even though far from all of the new United Russia deputies are young – their average age is 51 – there are still more than 80 new deputies in their 30s and 40s. These represent the coming generation of Russian politicians.

 So why bother?

Let us return to the question with which we started. If the campaign is lacklustre, the turnout low, and the result entirely predictable, what is the point of Russia’s parliamentary election?

First, from the point of view of the regime, elections serve as a legimating mechanism. I mean here legitimation in the political science sense, rather than in the vernacular sense that implies approving of the electoral process and its results as legitimate. All regimes, of whatever stripe, employ some mode of legitimation – be that popular vote, ideological justification, or ‘social contract’ based on the provision of economic goods or national security. Those who govern Russia have chosen democracy as their legitimation. Russia has a democratic constitution, and its rulers are scrupulous about sticking to its fundamental provisions, holding elections accordingly, and ensuring that these elections are multi-party in nature. One can criticise the way in which elections are managed in order to protect those in power – the regular rule changes, the blind eye turned to electoral manipulation, the media bias, the various forms of political control, the judicial means employed to restrict candidates, and so on – but from the regime’s point of view it is essential for reasons of legitimacy that elections are seen to be held. It is just that, contravening Adam Przeworski’s definition of democracy, United Russia does not lose elections.

If the purpose of the elections for the regime is clear, why do opposition parties play along? Surely they could threaten that unless the electoral playing field is levelled, they will refuse to play their part in legimating the ruling regime? Although such action is sometimes threatened when the regime is deemed to have committed particularly egregious electoral violations , the opposition parties do take part.

For those parties that get into parliament, there are obvious material rewards for the deputies and a comparatively exalted position within national political life for the parties themselves. But these parties, although capable of sharp criticism of the Putin regime at times, tend to work with it in parliament.  A revealing meeting of party leaders with President Putin, shortly after the election results were announced, had all present agreeing on the need for stability. Stability? What sort of opposition wants so little to change?

Zyuganov, the Communist leader, complained about there being too many parties in the election, and then lobbied Putin for positions for some of his party colleagues who failed to get elected. Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia asked that the chairmanship of a key parliamentary committee be given to someone from his party. That he was asking the president for something that is theoretically in the gift of the parliament is indicative of the control of the executive over the legislature, and the position of the regime in relation to the parliamentary opposition.

If the advantages of the elections for the regime and the parliamentary opposition are clear, what on earth is in it for those smaller parties that don’t even get into parliament, such as the liberal opposition parties Yabloko and PARNAS? Analysts of Russian affairs often argue that one of the main reasons for the non-systemic liberal opposition not making a breakthrough is their inability to unite their efforts. They bicker amongst themselves, taking votes from one another rather than from their ideological opponents. To make such a criticism is to misunderstand why these parties enter the elections. They’re not stupid. They don’t take part to win, because they know that they won’t. Their aims are different.

First, taking part in the elections gives them a voice. During an election campaign, these parties get air-time, criticise the ruling party, and can try to get their voices across – albeit that the rather lively TV debates can be so cacophonous as to drown out much of what is said.

Second, campaigning serves as a training ground for aspirant political figures dissatisfied with how Russia is ruled.

Third, and most significant, they take part in order to stay in the game. The legitimating mechanism of the Russian political system is democracy. At some point in the future – who knows when? – there will be a state of flux and the question of who next rules Russia will become urgent. The constitution and established political practice are clear, the people’s vote decides who rules. In some future time of change, the democratic institutional structure that is Russia’s political system will stop being more form than substance.

Those who remember the Soviet collapse recall the way in which de jure institutions and institutional rules quickly became de facto, and mattered enormously in enabling that process and shaping its progress. It is to prepare for such a day that parties take part now in elections that the ruling party does not lose.