Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, December 09, 2011

Academic thoughts on the Russian election results

Joshua Tucker, political science professor at New York University, offers some thoughts on the recent Russian elections and quotes Vladimir Gelman of the European University of Saint Petersburg on why "voters are not fools."

Tucker describes the Russian system as a "competitive authoritarian regime." To my understanding, he means pretty much the same thing that Fareed Zakaria described in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 1997) as an "illiberal democracy." Zakaria's label has been used frequently in comparative politics and in AP materials.

Voters are Not Fools: A Response to the 2011 Russian Parliamentary Elections
By now, we all know the score in terms of Russian elections. An election is called, the state employs its “administrative resources” to ensure huge advantages for the ruling party or candidate, a little bit of fraud is added in when necessary… and, voila! The ruling regime returns to power with a crushing victory… and absolute control of the parliament and the presidential apparatus…

However something interesting happened over the weekend. The competitive authoritarian regime par excellence, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, went to the polls in a parliamentary election and lost votes from the previous election. And seats. Quite a lot of them actually. Yes, the ruling United Russia party will still have a majority in parliament, but it will be a much smaller majority than its previous majority…

What exactly does this mean??? Things like this are not supposed to happen. We are pleased to welcome with a first response to the election Vladimir Gelman of the European University of Saint Petersburg: "The famous American political scientist V.O.Key in his 1966 book, “The Responsible Electorate”, posted a well-known maxim: “Voters are not fools”. Since then, it has been oft-cited in descriptions and explanations of voting behavior in electoral democracies. December 4, 2011, proved this wisdom for the case of voting behavior under electoral authoritarian regimes. It is especially true in Russia, where voters experienced more than a decade of relatively open electoral competition and have not forgot it as yet despite numerous efforts put forth by the Kremlin. Even though the party of power, United Russia (also known by its nickname as “the party of swindlers and thieves”), was able to get a majority of seats in the State Duma (238 out of 450 seats), still its officially reported electoral results were below 50%, and in some big cities even well below 30-35%. Yet, it was far from what political scientists call as “stunning” elections when authoritarian regimes collapsed because of unexpected opening of ballot boxes (similarly to what happens in the Soviet 1989 elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies). However, even under conditions as uneven as the playing field of Russia’s electoral authoritarianism act of voting might become a weapon of the weak citizens against the strong state, if citizens employ efficient strategies of their political resistance…"

[Gelman's whole article (in Russian)]

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