Political Janus: The Many Faces of Russia’s Electoral Rules

Former World Chess Champion and Russian political activist Gary Kasparov once gave a good summary of the difference between chess and Russian politics: in chess “the rules are fixed but the outcomes are unpredictable,” while in Russia, “the rules are unpredictable and the outcome is fixed.”  Since the writing of the 1993 constitution, Russia has altered several key features of their system.  Presidential terms increased from four to six years (the parliament went from 4- to 5-year terms in the same reform); the upper house of the bicameral Federal Assembly, the Federation Council, went from being elected to appointed; cameras have recently been installed in voting places to “take care of” electoral fraud…and these are just a few of the most visible changes!

The biggest change, however, may be the Russian electoral rules themselves.  In its 20 years (and going) since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has tried most every type of electoral system out there, and it appears that they will soon be returning to some old rules.

In electing the lower house of parliament – the State Duma – Russia seems to change its electoral rules roughly every 2 election cycles.  During its transition, Russia used a single-member district (SMD) plurality system (sort of like the US, but with more communists running for office).  From the 1993 constitutional crisis until 2003, Russia operated under a parallel system in which half of the Duma’s 450 seats were elected by SMD, the other half in a nation-wide proportional representation (PR) list.

More recently, Russia has been using a pure PR system where voters elect political parties from one nation-wide constituency.  For those not familiar with PR systems (which usually means my American readers…), parties win seats proportional to the vote they receive in the election (10% of the national vote would win a party 45 of the Duma’s 450 seats, for instance).  Not every party can get in, however; during the 2011 parliamentary election (the one that led to all those protests due to some pretty blatant election rigging), they used a 7% electoral threshold, but any party receiving more than 5% of the national vote received at least one seat in the Duma.

If you are wondering how a country like Russia is able to change its electoral system so freely – especially compared to the US, where we cannot seem to get rid of unpopular elements of our system despite some pretty widespread support – the reason is that the Russian constitution is a bit vague when it comes to elections.  Individuals have the right to vote in elections, but there is no actual description of what form the elections should take.  As a result, the Duma itself (with some…subtle…guidance from the executive branch) determines electoral rules.

The Russian Duma was already planning to make some minor changes to the current PR system before the 2011-2012 (2013?) protests emerged, but it now looks Putin wants something bigger than just tweaking the electoral threshold.  He is, in essence, proposing a return to the parallel voting system Russia used prior to the 2005 PR switch.  Putin may be taking his lessons from neighboring Ukraine, where a similar electoral reform allowed Victor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions to remain in control despite dwindling public support…something Putin and United Russia has also been struggling with.

The question remains, then, on whether this new set of rules will deliver the same outcomes it has in the past.


A Teaching Sample Post

I wrote this post as a sample for my post-Soviet students as the are preparing their own posts on the electoral rules of their chosen countries.  In this post, they were to include the following information:

  • What is the name of your country’s parliament?
  • Does your country have one or two houses of parliament?
  • How many representatives are there in each house?
  • Give a general description of the electoral system used to elect the lower house of your country’s parliament, including this information:
    • What type of electoral system does your country use (plurality, run-off, proportional representation, or mixed)?
    • On the ballot, do the voters of your country select candidates, political parties, or both?
    • How many districts/constituencies are there?
    • How are winners determined? Is it just majority vote, or is there a run-off
    • If your country uses PR, does it have an electoral threshold?
    • Are elections in your country generally free and fair, or did any official organizations report vote-rigging or electoral intimidation?

You can find a similar sample post with the full details of the assignment requirements here.

The big tip from this post?  Read and re-read your drafts!  The more complicated the information you are presenting, the more you need to work to make sure your reader understands what you are discussing.  Good ideas and information shine through simple language; overly complicated descriptions may hide a weak argument, but it also hides a good one.

If I had another big tip?  I love the IPU Parline database, I just wish they would work on making their descriptions easier for a reader to follow!


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