Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Flexible election rules

Heather Tafel of Grand Rapids, MI posted this article to one of the AP Comparative Government and Politics teachers groups. It's valuable because it traces the ways in which the Kremlin elite have adjusted election rules over the years to ensure their continued dominance of the legislature in Russia. How about these facts as example of an illiberal democracy? How about evaluating rule of law in Russia?

The author of the article is Vladimir Gelman, a Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and Distinguished Professor at the University of Helsinki.

Thank you, Heather.

Correction of Errors: How the Kremlin Re-Equilbrated Authoritarian Elections in 2016.

After Russia’s wave of protest during the 2011-2012 election cycle, the country’s authorities embarked on an effort to prevent anti-regime mass mobilization during subsequent election periods. They made a series of institutional changes and implemented a “politics of fear” to weaken the political opposition. Before the 2011-12 elections, the opposition had organized an effective negative campaign against Kremlin candidates. Now, as the September 18 parliamentary elections approach, the Russian leadership is confident that they have substantially reduced the risk of public protest. Analyzing the Kremlin’s 2016 parliamentary election campaign sheds light on how Russian authoritarianism survives.

The first two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union were accompanied by a remarkably low degree of political protest inside Russia. Most instances of anti-regime mobilization brought together only a few hundred activists at best. This is why the appearance of tens of thousands of protesters on the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities during the 2011-12 “winter of discontent” was perceived by the Kremlin as a major challenge to its general strategy of containing dissent...

After 2012, the Kremlin targeted the infrastructure of organized dissent, following not only the model of late Soviet repression but also replicating the tactics of the authoritarian regime in neighboring Belarus...

A combination of harsh new regulations and selective enforcement has now become the essence of a systematic and consistent “politics of fear.”...

Meanwhile, disloyal opposition parties have come under severe pressure. They have been denied participation in a number of sub-national elections and their mobilization capacity is very low...

Before the current campaign, the parliamentary electoral system was changed once again. While the 2007 and 2011 elections were held under a proportional representation (PR) system with a seven percent barrier for entry, there now exists a mixed electoral system with a five percent threshold, similar to the system in place from 1993 to 2003...

Another factor stacking the deck was the change to the electoral schedule. All previous parliamentary elections have been conducted in December, while the upcoming one is set for mid-September. This move aimed to decrease public interest in the elections thanks to the summer vacation season. This will decrease voter turnout, offer greater room for manipulation on election day, and diminish the potential effects of negative campaigning by the opposition. Holding earlier elections may also be considered a pre-emptive move against protest voting, given the expectation of increased voter dissatisfaction in the winter due to Russia’s economic situation...

[All the changes] serve as camouflage. As one political technologist linked with the Kremlin has confessed on Facebook, the presidential administration made it clear to the lower levels of the “power vertical” that UR must get two thirds of the seats in parliament by whatever means necessary. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, however, “honesty should be imitated to avoid the discontent of politically-concerned urban residents.” In the provinces, “imitation of honesty will be abandoned, and elections should be conducted there as usual, through administrative pressure and a very special counting of votes” (i.e., overt fraud)...

According to a July 2016 Levada Center survey, Russians are demonstrating their lowest-ever interest in elections. Only 46 percent of respondents said they discuss election-related matters (in October 2011, this share was 62 percent), only 33 percent agreed that the parliamentary election is an important event, and 39 percent considered electoral participation “useless.” Russia’s climate of mass political apathy has been fueled by a lack of political competitiveness or a public desire for major political change. Public opinion is one of “resigned acceptance” to the status quo—not because of genuine support of the authorities but because alternatives are perceived as less attractive and/or unrealistic.

Despite the fact that the 2011 parliament remained loyal to the Kremlin, all elections are now risky moments for the regime. Tightening the screws, institutional re-engineering, and more efficient top-down political control greatly assist in maintaining authoritarian equilibrium and legitimizing the status quo. Non-democratic elections also serve as a tool for the partial replacement of elites through careful selection and advancement of candidates by the Kremlin and its subordinates.

The Russian leadership’s upcoming victory in next month’s parliamentary elections will give it free reign going forward: at the moment, there are no domestic restraints other than increasing economic problems. With an eye toward the 2018 presidential election, the newly elected parliament could even turn into a major provider of constitutional change. A logical extension of Russia’s authoritarian trajectory would be the adoption of a new constitution stripped of declarations on individual rights and liberties, the primacy of Russia’s international obligations, and other such liberal statements (not to mention the removal of presidential term limits). After the expected restoration of authoritarian equilibrium this September, the Kremlin will be interested to further consolidate political and institutional arrangements that can help Russia’s leadership maintain its monopoly on power for some time to come.

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