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Assessing democratic standards in Russia’s regional elections

The Independent Institute of Elections has analyzed the results of the October 8 regional elections and concluded that if current political trends persist until the Duma election, the lower house will face the threat of losing legitimacy.


The Independent Institute of Elections (IIE) has analyzed the results of the October 8 regional elections and concluded that if current political trends persist until the Duma election, the lower house will face the threat of losing legitimacy.

The IIE compiled a “democracy rating for regional elections” and released it at a press conference on Wednesday, November 8. According to IIE Director Alexander Ivanchenko, the IIE developed an original methodology for assessing the level of democracy in elections, in terms of how closely they comply with recognized standards for free and fair elections: real competition, observance of the law, the extent to which the elected body is representative. All the same, the recent regional campaigns were compared to some sort of “abstract quantity,” not to ideal democracy. IIE analyst Alexander Kynev explained that the IIE attempted to assess how the regions are behaving within the framework of a non-democratic federal system.

The worst results were recorded in the Tyva republic. For example, on the criterion of “openness in election commissions,” Tyva scored 2.2 out of five; on “campaign organization (equality and fairness)” it scored two of ten. The best results were recorded in the Astrakhan region, with an aggregate score of 67.3 out of a hundred.

According to Arkady Liubarev, head of the IIE election campaign monitoring programs directorate, equality and fairness were determined quite simply: the IIE evaluated the quantity of information about candidates in the media, the response of election commissions to candidate actions, and “the court system’s honesty” in denying registration. The IIE claims that its criteria for evaluating the democratic nature of elections are unique. Ivanchenko said: “Russia has no developed election assessment criteria. We are evaluated on the basis of Western models, which are often inapplicable to Russia’s realities. For example, the United States can’t teach us anything about electoral legislation – but we don’t have a functioning system of cooperation between the authorities, the media, and the courts.”

The IIE used its original criteria to draw several conclusions about the effectiveness of some recent innovations in electoral legislation, first tested in this autumn’s campaigns. It turns out that breaking up party lists into regional groups leads to a large number of candidates declining to take up the seats they win. Arkady Liubarev: “Since each regional group requires its own ‘steam-engine’ high-profile candidate, a greater number of candidates refuse to take up their seats after the election. Breaking up lists into groups hasn’t solved the problem of candidates from regional capital cities having an advantage it was supposed to increase representation of territories in regional legislatures – editor – we found that the overwhelming majority of elected candidates came from regional capitals anyway.”

According to Alexander Kynev, the restrictions recently added to electoral legislation served to reduce turnout, which is advantageous for the United Russia party: only a certain category of voters actually vote. What’s more, as soon as turnout rises, all the restrictions – including the abolition of the “against all candidates” option – start working against United Russia. As an example, Kynev cited the mayoral election in Samara: in the second round of voting, for the first time in many years, voter turnout exceeded first-round turnout by 4% – and the Russian Party of Life candidate ended up defeating United Russia’s candidate: “Whenever people realize that they have a real chance of changing something, they turn out and vote.”

United Russia has drawn its own conclusions. Yesterday, a working group from the Duma’s constitutional law and state-building committee approved a proposal to abolish minimal voter turnout requirements. As committee chairman Vladimir Pligin explained, the proposal involves deleting the 20% minimal turnout provision from the law on basic guarantees of voting rights: “Thus, no such thresholds will be set in the law on Duma elections, for example.”

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