Reforms to electoral legislation have left Russian citizens worse off

The recent history of Russian electoral legislation has seen a continual battle between expanding and restricting electoral rights. After the relatively fair and transparent elections of the early 1990s, by the end of the decade the application of laws had started to deviate from the democratic standards.

In recent years, on the wave of fighting terrorism, many countries have passed laws that restrict the rights of their citizens. In other countries, such measures have resulted in broader powers for special services, for example; but in the Russian Federation this has entailed full-scale reforms to electoral legislation, after which citizens lost the ability to directly elect their regional leaders.

The recent history of Russian electoral legislation has seen a continual battle between two opposing trends: expanding and restricting electoral rights. After the relatively fair and transparent election campaigns of the early 1990s, by the end of the decade the application of laws had started to deviate from the democratic standards set down in Russian electoral legislation itself. On the one hand, executive branch bodies, together with election commissions and courts under their control, abused registration and disqualification procedures in order to winnow out candidates – so that those who had a good chance of winning but weren’t in favor with the authorities were kept out of elections. On the other hand, the authorities started creating unequal campaigning conditions for candidates, including unequal access to the media.

The electoral reforms carried out in recent years started with the federal law on political parties. Even then, concerns were expressed that the new law would permit the executive branch to filter out any political forces it considered undesirable, and would make it harder to establish new parties. This law was made even stricter in 2004, with minimal membership numbers for new parties raised to 50,000 and all existing parties required to re-register. Meanwhile, single-mandate districts in parliamentary elections were abolished; from now on, all Duma members will be elected via party lists. Moreover, the representation threshold for parties was raised from 5% to 7% of the vote, and the concept of an “electoral bloc” was deleted from the legislation entirely. At the same time, registration procedures for candidates and candidate lists were made substantially more complicated, for all parties other than those already represented in parliament.

Three additional radical bills have followed in 2006. One of them completely abolishes the right of voters to vote against all candidates; thus, citizens are deprived of their right to a choice, in circumstances where popular candidates or parties are winnowed out. The second bill binds candidates and Duma members more closely to their parties: no party will be able to nominate a member of any other party as a candidate, and Duma members won’t have the right to change parties after being elected. The third bill substantially increases opportunities to filter out unwelcome candidates, as well as restoring the practice of early voting, which encourages fraud.

The overall ideology in these electoral law reforms is obvious. It comes down to a simple formula: making large political parties the main actors in the electoral process. In the past, active electoral rights (the right to run for office) were mostly exercised by individuals – whether in single-mandate district elections or by “buying” some nationwide “carrier” (there was a whole market for these fly-by-night pseudo-parties). But now priority is being given to structured self-organizing forces.

The ideologues behind these reforms also have understandable motives. They may well have good intentions. Indeed, relying on mega-parties with an autonomous existence does make the political system more stable – preventing populist candidates or overt extremists from breaking through to the top. However, as so often happens in Russia, we’ve found ourselves in a situation where we might be throwing out the baby with the bath-water: that baby being the democracy that we suffered for in the turbulent 1990s. Past practice shows that establishing artificial barriers only leads to a vital political process being replaced by a simulation, while the actual battle of ideas retreats into the political shadows. Such a situation actually poses a far greater danger to the stable development of the state, since when there’s no opportunity to let off steam, the threat of a destructive explosion increases.

Diversity and variety are no threat to state order. On the contrary, a real political battle – where the participants are not shackled by bureaucratic procedures – only facilitates the consolidation of a strong democratic state.

We have recently observed a parliamentary election in Ukraine. There weren’t any problems with registering parties or blocs (ballot-papers listed over 40 of them) at either the national or regional level, while the representation threshold for the Supreme Rada was only 3% of the vote. But all this didn’t lead to any kind of apocalypse. The election was won by the forces which have real voter support, and only five parties and blocs ended up in the parliament.

International experience shows that political reforms have favorable consequences for a nation only when they are carried out in the interests of the whole society. A nation’s constitution should be the indicator of the extent to which steps taken on the path of reform are correct and lawful; but our impression is that this is being forgotten in Russia. Article 55.2 of the Russian Constitution states: “No laws passed in the Russian Federation should revoke or diminish the rights and liberties of individuals and citizens.”

Perhaps it would be useful for all Russian citizens to learn this formula by heart, and learn to apply it to any proposed normative acts or legislative initiatives. It should be noted that liberties aren’t always diminished directly, by abolishing them; they can also be diminished by devaluation, or by creating procedures that negate the actual rights of individuals and citizens. But any political system in which these rights and liberties cannot be realized would have a damaging impact on Russia.