Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Keeping up with Mr. Putin

Trying to keep track of the methods by which Russian legislators are elected is as difficult as keeping track of how regional administrators are selected. In the early years of the Russian Federation, half of the Duma was elected proportionally and half from single-member districts. Then in 2003, the system was changed so that all members of the Duma were elected proportionally. Now, it seems, that for the next elections at the end of 2016, the original system of half proportional and half single-member districts will be used.

For those of us in the USA, these changes are baffling. After all, the last major change in elections was 1914, when U.S. Senators had to face voters directly. That change required a Constitutional amendment. For all the grousing about the Electoral College, no changes have been made. So, Russia changes its electoral system on whims or the exigencies of contemporary politics?

My questions center around "What changed?" What changed between 1999 and 2003 to make proportional elections more attractive to the ruling elite? What changed between 2003 and 2013 to make proportional elections less attractive?

Putin Orders Change in Election Rules
President Vladimir V. Putin has ordered a major change in the rules for parliamentary elections, a move that could help solidify his power and influence toward the end of his current term and insulate him from dwindling public support for United Russia, the party that nominated him and currently holds a majority in Parliament.

United Russia logo
At Mr. Putin’s direction, half of the 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, would be filled using a proportional system based on votes for parties, with each party then filling its allotted seats. The other half would be filled by direct election of individual candidates, creating a potential opening for independent campaigns.

The new system, which the Central Election Commission is expected to unveil in the next several weeks, replaces a system of strict party-list voting. It would be the second major change to the parliamentary voting process in less than a decade and essentially amounts to a return to a system that had been in place through 2003…

But while the prospect of individual candidacies suggests a liberalizing of a political system often criticized as heavily tilted in favor of Mr. Putin and the governing authorities, history shows that they can actually have the opposite effect.

This is because individual candidates endorsed by the majority party tend to have a huge advantage in name recognition and resources in local races, and because candidates who run locally as independents can often be enticed to join the majority party when the new Parliament is formed, using perks offered by the presidential administration…

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