Parliamentary Elections in the Russian Federation (1)

The elections for the lower house – the Duma – took place on December 4, 2011, and resulted in a significant loss of seats for the ruling party, United Russia, which is the party of the current President (Medveded), and especially of the current Prime Minister (Vladimir Putin).

The lower house is the only one that is elected popularly, based on a proportional representation system. In a country that spans nine time zones, astonishingly enough, there is only one national district, in which the parties compete. This means that each party presents one national list of candidates, for the 450 member Duma.

Before competing in elections, however, the parties need to register with the Election Commissions of the appropriate levels, a process that is by no means easy or straightforward. In fact, in order to be allowed to participate in elections, parties not currently in Parliament need to gather 150,000 signatures, but no more than 5000 from each federal unit (subject of the federation: republic, region, district etc.) These signatures can be dismissed for many reasons, however, and this can lead to denying registration to the party. Several parties have been denied registration for other, addition reasons,  ranging from the symbols the given party used (deemed offensive), to  contradictory statements in the official party documents, to time between passing the party platform and filing for registration etc.  A typical example of such a denial is the case of the Pirate Party (probably modeled on the very popular Pirate Parties of Scandinavia and Germany), which was refused registration on the basis of the fact that its name is “criminal.” Unsurprisingly, then, only 7 (seven) parties have been registered, and have been allowed to participate in the parliamentary elections – in a country of about 140,000,000 inhabitants.

There is also an electoral threshold of 7%, which means that only parties gaining more than 7% of the popular vote can have access to parliamentary seats. (A proportional electoral system functions based on the principle that the percentage of seats obtain should reflect closely the percentage of votes obtained, making it thus the “fairest” electoral system.). Combined with the fact that it applies to the whole country (taken as a single district), this is one of the highest and most prohibitive electoral threshold around (among democracies or countries in transition to democracy).

Another consequence of these electoral requirements is that parties need to have a gigantic, country-wide infrastructure, in order to survive the electoral process.  The United Russia party, which is the party of power (i.e. composed and backed by those who have power, in order to keep that power, at all levels and in all the regions of the Russian Federation)  has an obvious and natural advantage from this point of view, as it can and does use the apparatus of the public administration and public companies, to restrain other parties’ access to political participation, and to actively promote the United Russia cause.  As documented by Golos and through other fora, there have been thousands of complaints from employees of such public institutions, or from students in state schools, that they have been subjected to pressure, by their superiors or teachers, to support the United Russia party.

By the time of the elections, therefore, there were only seven parties which qualified to participate in them: United Russia – Putin’s and Medvedev’s party of power; A Just Russia – a satellite/offshoot of United Russia,  and supporting it; the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) – nostalgia and communism; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) – nationalistic, extremist, statist; Yabloko – the traditional pro-democratic opposition party; Right Cause – a new party, pro-democracy and pro-European;  Patriots of Russia – also a newer party, along the lines of the Communist Party and of the LDPR.

Given then the difficult conditions under which the elections took place (difficult for the parties out of power, of course), the significant loss of seats suffered by United Russia became a glaring sign of the obvious popular dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, and with the United Russia/Putin-dominated political regime. In a country where a significant part of the population, especially in the areas farther from the center, has not yet acquired the civic habits or the actual means for competitive, democratic politics, where institutions of government serve as agents of the party in power, and where participation in elections and campaigning involve heroic efforts from opposition parties, this significant loss is the loudest criticism the population could in fact express.

Here are the results of the elections (courtesy of Wikipedia, but also available in detail on the official site of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation):

Summary of the 4 December 2011 State Duma election results
Parties and alliances Seat composition Popular vote % ± %
Seats ± %
United Russia 238 -77 52.88% 32,379,135 49.32% -14.98
Communist Party 92 +35 20.46% 12,599,507 19.19% +7.62
A Just Russia 64 +26 14.21% 8,695,522 13.24% +5.50
Liberal Democratic Party 56 +16 12.45% 7,664,570 11.67% +3.53
Yabloko 0 0 0% 2,252,403 3.43% +1.84
Patriots of Russia 0 0 0% 639,119 0.97% 0.08
Right Cause 0 0 0% 392,806 0.60% new party
Total 450 0 100% 65,656,526 100%
Valid ballot papers 64,623,062 98.43%
Invalid ballot papers 1,033,464 1.57%
Eligible voters 109,237,780 Turnout: 60.10%

United Russia went from (directly) controlling 70% of the seats in the house, to 53%; it still has an absolute majority, but not a constitution-changing one. Their share of the “popular” vote, even with the alleged fraud and the aforementioned obstacles, went from 64%, to 49%.

There is clear popular dissatisfaction with the regime, as illustrated by the post-elections street protests. More on that soon, but until then I invite you to watch this short clip illustrating the fate a United Russia supporter suffered at the hands of some fed-up citizens (one should note that “United Russia supporter” very often means people who are paid and bused to “be that”).

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