Sunday, November 9, 2014

Vladimir Putin's new electoral law

Recently, the Russian Duma (parliament) approved a new, or rather old, electoral law. The law provides for a mixed-member majoritarian system, with half of the 450 seats being elected by single-member plurality, and half of the seats being elected by closed-list nationwide proportional representation with a 5% threshold. The system has not been widely discussed, but it has the potential to have a significant effect on Russia's political system.

The current system

Russia currently uses regional closed party list proportional representation with a 7% national threshold. This system was introduced in 2005 on the initiative of President Vladimir Putin. It was designed to give United Russia control over the Duma, and to remove independents. As United Russia was comfortably over 50% of the vote, proportionality was not an issue. 

At the first election under party-list PR in 2007, the system had its desired effects. United Russia won 64% of the vote and 315 out of 450 seats. The far-left nationalist Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) won 11.6% of the vote and 57 seats. The far-right nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) won 8.1% of the vote and 40 seats, while the pro-Putin (at that point) centre-left Fair Russia party won 7.7% of the seats and 38 seats. The Agrarian Party (left-wing socialist) won 2.3% of the vote and no seats, while the centre-left liberal Yabloko party won 1.6% and no seats.

The result was excellent for Putin. There was no serious opposition to his government, with the CPRF and LDPR both being fringe parties and Fair Russia being controlled by the Kremlin. A bit of political posturing could give United Russia the Duma support of the LDPR, and some populist-left posturing could do the same for the CPRF.

However, under the presidency of Putin acolyte Dmitry Medvedev, United Russia lost support. The 2011 election (an election widely considered to be unfair) was relatively bad for United Russia, despite alleged fraud. United Russia fell to 49.32% of the vote, which gave them 238 seats. They narrowly won a majority thanks to Yabloko (who had won 4%) falling below the threshold, which meant that United Russia won 52.8% of the effective vote, and a majority of the seats.

All the opposition parties had a vote increase. The CPRF won 19.2% of the vote and 92 seats. Fair Russia won 13.2% and 64 seats, beating the LDPR, which won 11.7% and 56 seats.

This created a headache for Putin. At this point, the CPRF and LDPR were anti-Putin, while Fair Russia were growing more independent. A minority for United Russia would doom Putin to at least five years of horse-trading to pass his agenda.

In 2013, Putin decided to change the law. A new electoral law was introduced into the Duma, providing for 50% of seats to be elected by party-list proportional representation with a 5% threshold and 50% of seats elected by single-member plurality.

This law passed the Duma with wide support, with only the CPRF voting against. It is hard to pick any particular motivation for this vote other than blind Putin-hate on the part of the CPRF or Putinophilia (is that a word?) on the part of Fair Russia and LDPR, or both.

Possible Effects of the new law

The mixed-member majoritarian system has been used before in Russia. It was used for the first democratic election in 1993, and was used for the 1995, 1999, and 2003 Duma elections. As a result, there is some historical evidence for any claims.

For a start, more parties will be represented in the Duma. Yabloko's vote has probably been depressed by liberals tactically voting for other parties rather than wasting their vote on a party with no chance of getting 7%. 5% is much more reasonable, and it is probable that Yabloko will re-enter the Duma, with approximately 20 members. 

There is room for other parties as well, and a liberalisation of the party registration law (passed concurrently with the electoral system change) may mean a wider variety of other opposition voices are represented. On the other hand, it could well mean that the liberal vote would become split, meaning that few liberals make it into the Duma.

It will be good for United Russia. The divided opposition will be easily defeated in the single-member electorates, and they will win enough party-list seats to comfortably control the Duma. 

A widely reported characteristic of this system is its tendency to elect independents. And, as an independent candidacy is currently impossible in Russia, it is certain that we will see more independent members of the Duma. 

However, the high numbers of independents will not be repeated under the first mixed-member majoritarian election. This is because Russia's party system has developed significantly. In 1993, independents won 48.7% of the district vote and 30 seats. This was due to the complete lack of any large political parties. A local independent could  win a seat and beat a candidate of a large party based on name recognition. 

Even in 1995, political parties were still weak. The CPRF was the largest party in both the list and constituency contests, which could be put down to good organisation left over from the Soviet era. The LDPR was the second largest party, but was far stronger in the lists which could be attributed to the vote-pulling power of leader Vladimir Zhirnovsky. The Kremlin-backed Our Home is Russia party (one of the predecessors of United Russia) won 45 seats on the list, but only 10 constituencies. Yabloko was the only reasonably balanced party, with 31 list and 10 district. Independents won 77 seats, all in districts.

Independents reached their zenith in 1999, when 105 were elected. This could be attributed to a poor result for the Communists, who lost some district seats despite their national party vote rising. The Unity party, which was endorsed by then-Prime Minister Putin, was strong in the list but weak in the districts, while the only other party to do well in the districts was left-nationalist party Fatherland-All Russia, which won 31 seats.

Much changed in the period leading up to the 2003 election. United Russia was formed from a merger of Unity and Fatherland-All Russia, while the new Rodina party was formed (left-nationalist). United Russia had the full backing of the Kremlin, and won comfortably, with 223 seats. With only 3 seats short of a majority, Putin had control (more or less) of the Duma during the 2003-2007 term, thanks to friendly minor parties and independents. However, the need for firmer control, and the irritant of having to negotiate with pesky independents, meant that Putin switched to party-list PR.

While history shows that independents have done well under mixed-member majoritarian, Russians are now more used to powerful political parties. The existence of an obvious 'party of power' will help guide the voting intentions of Russians towards party-nominated candidates. Still, independents could be something of a pain for Putin if they get the balance of power.

A better system for Putin

Okay, let's say that you are a civil servant in the Central Electoral Comission, and you have been asked to design an electoral system for Russia designed to be the best for United Russia. 

My personal proposal would be to introduce a proportional representation system, but with a fixed 60% majority for the largest party. This would be the best of both worlds: full control over Duma members, and a guaranteed majority for United Russia, as none of the split opposition parties could win. You could even lower the threshold to 5%, and it would make no difference to the United Russia majority. The results of the Duma elections using this system are below.

Your suggestions below!


  1. "the high numbers of independents will not be repeated under the first mixed-member majoritarian election. This is because Russia's party system has developed significantly." I don't know about that. Isn't Ukraine evidence to the contrary?

    Also, you don't discuss electoral fraud at all. For instance, were Yabloko excluded as a result of the system or as a result of a rigged election? And do you think that elections will be less fraudulent next time? - JD

    1. JD, the Ukraine party system is much more fractured than Russia's. The existence of United Russia as an entirely hegemonic party, the like which has not been seen in the Ukraine, soaks up some of the local independents. In the case of Japan, if the Liberal Democrats were replaced by two or three bickering conservative parties, there would be more independent politicians, as there would be no obvious national machine for the independent politicians to join for support.

      Regarding electoral fraud, the lack of any investigation means that it is kind of hard to give any specifics on what electoral fraud might do to a party, but given that Yabloko had only ever polled above 7% in 1993, it is probable that the system kept them out of the Duma in 2007. The 2003 election is still up for debate.

      As to whether they will be more or less rigged, I would guess that the next election will be less fraudulent. MMM makes it less neccesary, and Putin's support has been bolstered by events in the Ukraine.

  2. By the way, the current threshold isn't exactly 7%. By an unusual (possibly unique) clause that was introduced ahead of the last legislative election, parties with more than 5% are entitled to 1 seat, and parties with more than 6% are entitled to 2. - JD

    1. It certainly is an unusual clause, but it has not come into effect yet as all parties below 7% have also been below 5%. I think Greece may have used a similar threshold in the late 90s, but I'm not sure.


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