Electoral law amendments cause controversy
The Duma is preparing for the second reading of some amendments to electoral laws. In early summer, this bill drew protests not only from the opposition, but also from the Central Electoral Commission. A controversial new addition is the proposal to abolish minimal voter turnout requirements.
The Duma is preparing for the second reading of some amendments to the law on basic guarantees of voting rights in elections and referendums for citizens of the Russian Federation. In early summer, this bill drew protests not only from the opposition, but also from the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).
Towards the end of its spring 2006 session, the Duma voted in favor of the United Russia faction’s proposals to bring back early voting, counter displays of extremism in election campaigns, and empower regional election commissions rather than courts to determine whether voter-bribing has taken place.
At the time, Deputy Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (United Russia) said: “We have not written these amendments to give ourselves an advantage. On the contrary, we are interested in creating an effective, competitive political elite.” In Volodin’s view, early voting could have had an impact on election results in single-mandate districts; but since such districts have now been abolished, early voting can no longer do any harm.
CEC Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov spoke out with surprising force against the idea of bringing back early voting. He pointed out that the Duma had promised in 2005 not to include that standard in electoral legislation, and stated that the proposed amendments would “return Russia to the ranks of slave-owning countries.”
By autumn, as the bill’s second reading approached, the United Russia faction realized that it had gone too far. Alexander Moskalets, deputy chairman of the constitutional law and state-building committee, submitted an amendment that rules out the use of early voting. After pausing for sober thought, lawmakers also abandoned the crazy idea of giving regional election commissions the same powers as courts.
But United Russia has no intention of backing down on the amendments concerning displays of extremism in election campaigns. “We shall defend these provisions consistently, one by one,” said Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the constitutional law and state-building committee, at a special working group meeting on November 8.
All the same, some of the amendments – such as those submitted by Moskalets – may be interpreted as unconstitutional. This applies to the proposal that citizens in pre-trial detention on extremism-related charges should lose the right to run for office. In other words, Moskalets is proposing that such citizens should lose the right to be election candidates long before a court convicts them of a crime. But the court might acquit them – and it isn’t clear what the law would prescribe in that case.
But the most controversial addition to the bill in advance of its second reading is the proposal to abolish the minimal voter turnout threshold required for an election to be considered valid. At present, the threshold is 20% – optional for municipal elections. According to Pligin, “existing practice in municipal elections has shown itself to be successful.” Communist and independent lawmakers take the opposite view, contending that by abolishing minimal turnout requirements, the Duma would be facilitating a situation where voters lose interest in elections entirely and elected bodies have highly questionable mandates.
Moreover, the bill proposes that registered candidates should be forbidden to talk on radio or television about the potential negative consequences of electing other politicians, or disseminate any information which might create “a negative image of a candidate or a list of candidates.” Not even the bill’s authors are all in agreement on this point. According to some of them, if one candidate reveals (truthfully) that another has a criminal record, some court might interpret this as “creating a negative image.”
The amendments bill may yet undergo some further changes in the process of discussion at the Duma’s plenary session on Wednesday, November 15.