The Kremlin Does A Very Clever Thing

Lost in the furor and liberal butthurt over Depardieu’s defection has been a development of far greater import: Russia is going to cardinally change its elections system.

According to Putin’s directive to the Presidential Administration and the Central Elections Committee, they are to come up with a bill that transforms Russia’s current proportional system to a mixed one based on proportional and majoritarian representation.

In other words, it is returning to the system in had in 2003 and earlier, or adopting the system now in place in Hungary and Ukraine.

This change is very clever. First, it will massively favor the dominant party, i.e. United Russia. In 2003, it got almost half the seats despite only getting 38% in the proportional race and a mere 24% in the constituency races (plus a lot of UR-friendly “independents” to seal the deal). This system allows United Russia to “artificially” (I put apostrophes around it because this system is not after all considered inherently anti-democratic) bolster its results during a period when its ratings are likely to decline further. The recent example of Ukraine’s Party of Regions shows how a party with only about 30% popular support can seize virtually half the seats with a split opposition and the usage of admin resources including pro-PR “independents.”

Second, it will also massively lower the incentives for direct falsifications, which are a very prominent and undeniable stain on Russia’s elections in the past decade. After all while in a proportional system falsification will have a direct and immediate impact on the result, in a mixed system United Russia or UR-friendly candidates will be sweeping the constituency elections anyway. Ergo much smaller degrees of fraud or even the absence of fraud would still result in better results for UR than the c.8% falsification in its favor in the 2011 elections everything else being equal.

So, if played right, United Russia in 2016 can still get its parliamentary majority or close to it despite (1) a likely decline in support and (2) allowing for much lower levels of fraud. Hence also much less scope for criticism on the part of various elections watchdogs and Western governments. Even though (as in Ukraine) this system will be inherently less democratic than the current proportional one, ironically enough.


  1. What is the share of proportional/FPTP seats? Would be interesting to compare with Germany’s odd but apparently effective and very democratic hybrid system.

    • 225 by PR, 225 by constituency.

      What are the details of the German system?

      • No better place than Wiki 😉 Germany has a very similar near 50/50 split of FPTP/PR. But in fact the PR vote determines the size of parties in Bundestag, for every seat won in FPTP you give up a PR seat, so it serves only to make people feel closer to their MP by having one linked to your constituency, not to affect balance of power. Russia’s new system appears a cross between Germany and the UK.

        • The German electoral system is (like many things in Germany) extremely sophisticated and very complicated by international standards. It can only successfully work in a society which is homogeneous (as Germany basically is) and which has a long history of being very efficiently and honestly administered so that there is an exceptionally high degree of public trust. None of these factors currently exists in Russia. One day possibly Russia could move to such a system but the priority now should be to create a simple system that people understand and which addresses the problems that blight the system has now.

          The one word of caution I would say is that whilst the proposed change may help to deal with some of the problems of electoral corruption and underepresentation thrown up by the present system, it is not a panacea. The culture of vote rigging in places like Chechnya is so embedded that mere changes to the electoral system is not by itself going to change to it. That will require a lot of hard work and ultimately a culture change. Having said that the proposed change in the electoral system is a significant step forward and should be welcomed for that reason.

        • Okay, thanks.

          Germany’s system is indeed beautiful and apparently unique.

  2. I too think this is a clever move for the reason you say. It also opens up the possibility of one or two liberals getting in through the constituency section especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putting aside the question of vote rigging, the fact that the two liberal parties Yabloko and Right Choice failed to get any representation in the parliament following the December 2011 election must have been something that badly upset their supporters who are disproportionately concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The fact that a significant minority of the population in the two capitals felt disenfranchised was I am sure a factor in the protest movement especially in its first weeks. I had favoured reducing the electoral threshold to 3% precisely in order to deal with this problem but this is definitely a better way. Also lowering the electoral threshold might now be dangerous given the alarming proliferatiion of new parties which have cropped up since the easing of the registration rules, which might make the Duma unmanageable if they got in.

  3. Fedia Kriukov says:

    Putin is basically undoing all the major political reforms he introduced in his second term (Duma, governors, party registration requirements). It would be nice if he also disbanded the Public Chamber.

    But I will really be satisfied if he says it straight out: “Forgive me, dear citizens, but I was dumb ass who didn’t know what he was doing. This will never happen again.”

  4. I’m not sure about your prediction on less fraud because of the change. As we have seen in Ukraine, the most scandals were in majority races, where the incentives were extremely concentrated and amounted to prison or freedom for some participants. What you say would be true if a) popularity of UR doesn’t fall too much, so that it is still expected to gain a plurality in almost every race, and b) shady candidates with businesses to protect are not allowed to run. While I could deem a) as possible, b) probably isn’t – there are too many people with too many skeletons in the closet in Russian politics nowadays.

    That said, I’d expect less fraud anyway – with death of the opposition, and 15-20 percent of ever present but unseen liberal vote being split between Yabloko, December 5 party, Prokhorov’s party, Navalny’s party, plus all the spoilers and remnants of Right Cause, there’s nothing to be afraid.

  5. Trouble is, “lawyer, politician, and political and financial activist” (Wiki) Navalny has no party and seems to be of far greater importance to Western journalists than he does to Russian citizens.

    • I believe there is a party of his supporters already – Narodny Alliance, if I’m not mistaken – and Naval’ny has claimed it as party representing his interests.

      • moscowexile says:

        That may well be the case, but I cannot find any mention of Navalny on the Narodny Alliance website:

        • Just google Navalny Narodny Alliance and you’ll see mid-December announcements from N. Rumors about him and the party started moving around in summer. I guess he’s hedging his bets by not officially leading his party – his brand still has an appeal, but none of the new parties is successful so far.