Veshnyakov: no early elections next year

Alexander Veshnyakov: “There are no substantial grounds for saying that our legislation already offers reasons to doubt the democratic nature of our elections or their compliance with international standards and our Constitution. But a great deal depends on how legislation is applied.”

Alexander Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), maintains that early elections are unlikely in the current political cycle.

Question: How likely, in your view, is the prospect of an early election in Russia?

Alexander Veshnyakov: In my view, the probability of an early election is negligible. I don’t see any forces with an interest in that. There is no reason to expect an early Duma election. Neither is there any reason to expect an early presidential election: analogies with 2000 are inappropriate, if only because the situation is completely different now, and it isn’t clear why an ultra-popular president would want to step down early.

Question: Just in theory, are there any advantages to early elections?

Alexander Veshnyakov: I don’t see any substantial advantages. The only argument in favor would be to reduce the too-short interval between the Duma election and the presidential election. But past experience has shown that this interval isn’t critical. It even has its own advantages: the Duma election in December can be a dress rehearsal for the presidential election in March. A longer interval would entail some danger – after all, public attitudes could change substantially over a year or two. And combining the presidential and parliamentary elections would double the risks.

Question: What about the idea of separating the Duma election and the presidential election according to the two common voting days: holding the Duma election in October and the presidential election in March?

Alexander Veshnyakov: They are already separated. The presidential election is combined with the common voting day in March. As for the Duma election, the law contains a proviso: in a Duma election year, the regional elections scheduled for that year’s October common voting day are transferred to the same day as the Duma election, in December.

Question: Of late, the CEC has clearly become more active in developing its legislative support base. Is this being done so that you can be ready for an election at any moment?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Of course, we are making preparations for the forthcoming election campaigns. In effect, we started work on this straight after the last round of federal elections ended. We analyzed those elections and elections in the regions, then moved on to writing a new edition of the law on Duma elections and a number of amendments to other electoral laws. Our reasoning was that legislation should be amended and corrected two years in advance of the next federal elections, leaving time for everyone to get used to the new rules. Guided by this reasoning, we are developing normative documents: instructions, methodology recommendations, sample documents, and so on. We are aiming to make comprehensive and meticulous preparations for the next Duma election, which will be held on December 2, 2007.

Question: But the lawmakers recently disrupted your work schedule – producing their own amendments to electoral legislation. What do you think of their performance?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Well, this situation is common enough: as elections approach, the parties represented in parliament develop an urge to “amend and improve” a few things in electoral legislation. Naturally, they expect to benefit from doing so.

Some of the amendments passed recently may be described as sensible. Some others, in my view, are problematic and disputable.

For example, some sensible amendments concern candidate registration procedures. At first, it was proposed that election commissions could deny registration if the information provided by a candidate was incorrect or incomplete, or if the documents weren’t formatted properly. This would have led to widespread abuses: any candidate could be kept out of an election by manipulating such rules. After we talked to the lawmakers about this, common sense prevailed, and this harmful regulation was not passed. Now the law provides a comprehensive list of documents and requirements for them. Election commissions must do preliminary checks of documents as they are submitted, inform candidates or parties of any flaws in their documentation, and give them time to fix the errors.

Another example: restricting negative campaigning in the ads produced by candidates and parties. After all, we can recall incidents when little-known parties dedicated their allocated airtime to criticizing rivals rather than explaining their own policies. Now the law will ban such mud-slinging tactics.

Here’s another point which the CEC supported earlier as well: restricting participation in elections by individuals convicted of major crimes, including crimes of an extremist nature. From now on, they won’t be allowed to become candidates until their convictions are overturned or rescinded. Otherwise, we could have people who are guilty of major crimes against the state being able to run for parliament or run for president as soon as they’re released from jail.

Question: But the Constitution already provides an exhaustive list of such restrictions: the only people who aren’t allowed to run for office are those serving prison terms as set by a court of law, or those who are legally declared insane. All other citizens have the right to become candidates in elections.

Alexander Veshnyakov: The Constitution has two interrelated standards. You’re talking about the standards in Article 32 – but there’s also Article 55.3, which says that for the purpose of safeguarding national security, morality, or the interests of other citizens, federal laws may introduce additional restrictions – which has now been done.

Question: All right, which of the latest amendments do you regard as “disputable”?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Primarily, abolishing the “against all candidates” option and the minimal voter turnout threshold. Of course, we cannot say that these innovations are unconstitutional or contrary to international standards. Moreover, the OSCE’s recommendations after Russia’s last round of federal elections indicated that the “against all” option should go. But all these standards had their advantages and disadvantages, and it isn’t clear that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages.

Yes, in some sense, the “against all” option did induce citizens to make easy decisions. On the other hand, in normal, competitive elections, the “against all” vote has usually been insignificant – never greater than 4% in federal elections. But whenever election campaigns were dirty and voters didn’t regard an election as fair, the “against all” vote would rise sharply. In other words, the “against all” option had a preventive function against the uncontrolled use of administrative resources.

The same applies to voter turnout: as long as there’s some suspense about an election outcome, and some real competition – with people understanding that the election outcome depends on them – they will turn out to vote without needing to be urged. But whenever they sense that elections are being manipulated, interest in voting declines sharply.

Thus, abolishing minimal turnout requirements primarily serves the interests of those who want to organize dull campaigns with no real alternatives, safeguarding themselves against any unexpected responses from the public. Then again, in itself, abolishing the turnout threshold doesn’t mean anything. Now that these standards have become law, much will depend on how they are applied in practice.

Question: May we hope that amendments to electoral legislation are now complete – or might there be some further innovations before the elections?

Alexander Veshnyakov: The Duma is currently considering some amendments concerning post-election distribution of seats in parliament. A number of lawmakers have proposed that parties should be allowed to make their own decisions about distributing seats within their candidate list, in the event that some vacancies arise. This is a very dangerous approach. It’s being presented in a way that implies the CEC handing over those powers to parties. But the CEC doesn’t actually have those powers – the decision is made by citizens in elections, and the CEC only acts to ensure that distribution of seats is consistent with the order of precedence set by voters as they vote for particular party lists.

What these lawmakers propose to do would change the picture entirely. It’s not just a technicality – it’s a matter of principle. If these innovations are passed, they could provide additional incentives for intra-party corruption. This would discredit the proportional voting system.

Essentially, procedures of this kind led to widespread party corruption in Italy. In 1993, Italian citizens voted in a referendum to abolish the proportional system. Is that where we want to go?

I’m also wary because the Duma committee for constitutional law and state-building endorsed this bill without any public debate. Even though I heard committee chairman Vladimir Pligin say that there would be no more fundamental changes to electoral legislation.

Question: For some time now, there has been talk that forces hostile to Russia might use “Orange techniques” during the forthcoming election campaigns in order to cast doubt on the legitimacy of our elections. These “disputable” amendments, as you put it – could they offer additional tools for such forces?

Alexander Veshnyakov: There are no substantial grounds for saying that our legislation already offers reasons to doubt the democratic nature of our elections or their compliance with international standards and our Constitution. But a great deal depends on how legislation is applied: as long as application is in keeping with the letter and the spirit of the Constitution, no such threat will arise. But if we encounter any attempts to pervert the legal standards, maximizing the negative potential contained in some of them, then of course there might be some grounds for serious complaints about our elections.

Question: The terms of current CEC members expire next March. Do you intend to stay on for another term?

Alexander Veshnyakov: I intend to participate in the work of the CEC, but the decision isn’t up to me – it’s made by the bodies that appoint CEC members. In my view, the current CEC team deserves to be reappointed for another term, since its actions have been professional and statesmanlike.