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Russia's elections, in a nutshell

Russia's elections, in a nutshell
By Serguei Doubine
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Russian general election: why should we care?

Russian general election: why should we care?


On September 18 almost 112 million Russian voters are set to elect the 450 members of the lower chamber of Parliament (Duma, as it was called before 1917 and again since 1993). The members of the upper chamber, Council of Federation or Senate, are directly ‘delegated’ by regions and the President. On Sept. 18 there will be also a series of local elections, which is why it’s called ‘unified voting day’.

The parliament is the main legislative body in the Russian Federation. It approves bills which are later sent to the President for his signature. According to Constitution, the so-called “legislative initiative” (i.e., the right to propose bills) lies both with the government or Presidential administration, and also with the the Duma which usually produces more than a half of such bills.

And legislative output is staggering: in the last Duma, the 6th convocation (let’s call it Duma Mark VI or Duma 2.0.6) between 2011 and 2016 examined over 6000 bills which in turn produced 1816 new laws. As influential Russian business daily Vedomosti pointed out, in comparison, current US Congress since January 2015 approved 183 laws, and the sitting British House of Commons has produced 145 Public General Acts since the beginning of 2012. This high level of legislative activity by Russian MPs has led to derogatory comments and nicknames such as the ‘Crazy Printer’.

Among those laws much international attention was drawn to measures including a ban on child adoptions by US citizens and limits on adoptions in countries where same-sex marriages are legal; the creation of the status of ‘foreign agents’ – criticised as a pressure tool against NGOs; a law on protecting children from pornography which opponents warned could be used to censor the internet and target LGBT organisations; and, lastly, the so-called Yarovaya anti-terror laws which, according to their detractors, are tantamount to the creation of the Orwellian ‘Big Brother’.

Other laws, less well publicised in the West and approved by Duma Mark VI include more protection for bank deposits, more child benefits, easier access to medication for cancer patients, easing of rules to free impounded cars and, even if not everybody in nicotine-addicted Russia agrees, a ban on smoking in public places.

How is this election different to previous ones?

On paper, this election offers some respite from the tight electoral climate of recent years. Firstly, half of the MPs will be elected in the single-mandate districts – like the ‘first past the post’ system in UK – increasing the chances of success for ‘opposition’ and independent candidates (for example, the recent election in neighbouring Belarus sent to the parliament its first opposition MPs for almost 20 years, elected in a single-mandate district). Party lists will supply another 225 MPs. And while many hail the reintroduction of single-mandate districts (initially scrapped in 2005), there are others who say many tiny factions and independents risk slowing down and complicating the legislative process.

Moreover, the number of parties running lists doubled from seven in 2011 to 14 now. The newcomers notably include liberals from PARNAS, Civilian Power and Civic Platform and the ecologists of “The Greens”.

Finally, the controversial head of the Central Electoral Commission, Vladimir Churov nicknamed by opposition ‘The Magician’ after alleged vote-rigging during his tenure (2007-2016), was replaced last March by Ella Pamfilova who has strong social and liberal credentials including stints as Human Rights Ombudsman or Presidential Representative for Human Rights and Minister for Social Protection in several governments. While she has no means of influence on the campaign itself (nor had she expressed such desire), supporters of her candidacy hope she’ll watch over possible irregularities during the vote.

And, to round up the novelties, on a more controversial note this will be the first Duma election held in Russia-annexed Crimea. While those patriotic Russian voters welcome this enthusiastically, the holding of the vote in Crimea has predictably raised red flags in Ukraine where, in response, President Poroshenko banned voting in Russian consulates and the embassy on Ukrainian soil.

But do Russians care?

Apparently not that much. According to a poll by the respected Levada-Center, the single truly independent big Russian pollster, 43% of Russians have not followed the 2016 campaign AT ALL, while 43% responded having followed ‘not closely’. Only 9% said they follow it attentively.

Only half of respondents from another Levada poll say they will definitely or probably go to the polls. While some observers have blamed such voter apathy on a summer campaign or the fact that the vote falls on a Sunday in a still-busy ‘dacha’ season (the secondary residence in the countryside is like a shrine for Russians, and the turnover in the winter is always bigger than in the autumn), some voters feel their vote won’t change a thing or they don’t believe current politicians or, finally, even for liberal voters, they don’t know the candidates well enough (blame, once again, the campaign held in the summer or the insufficient funds of liberal parties to run a fully-fledged campaign).

Is this election likely to change anything?

Once again, apparently not. Short of having a crystal ball, nobody can answer this question definitively. But the polls indicate that even with falling ratings the ruling United Russia party will comfortably win a third of the vote which in turn, with single-mandate candidates and redistribution of ballots cast for parties that failed to pass 5% barrier, will give them a necessary majority in the next Duma. According to polls held at the end of August, out of 14 parties on the ballot only four – the same that were sitting in the last Duma – will clear the 5% barrier required to enter parliament. So, it’s likely to be another five years of more of the same. And while many Russians could welcome this as a sign of stability, the same stability could even deter some of the supporters of the current Russian administration from going to vote on September 18: if nothing will change, even if it’s a good thing, then why bother?

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