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.

Putin’s Birthday, Birth Of A Legacy

The latest Expert Discussion Panel focused on an assessment of Putin’s historical legacy, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Here I try to answer whether history will see Putin as the “founder of a modern and successful Russia”, or as a tragic figure who threw away his chance of greatness to the “delusion of indispensability”:

While there are several criticisms one can make of Putin’s practice of democracy, his prolonged stay in power isn’t one of them.

As Evgeny Minchenko pointed out, there are many Western examples of very long, but non-authoritarian rule. Canadian PM Jean Chrétien ruled for 20 years, the Federal Chancellor of the FRG Helmut Kohl – for 16 years. Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has been in power from 1996 to the present day (nobody even bothered challenging him in 2000 and 2008). Charles de Gaulle, one of the figures Putin quotes as his inspiration, ruled for 11 years; the student protests against him in 1968, ironically, only ended up increasing support for him. Another of Putin’s heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was US President from 1933 until his death in 1945, and remains a political colossus in the American imagination.

Nor is there anything particularly anti-Constitutional about what Putin did. Unlike in Georgia, where Saakashvili planned to retain power by moving powers to the Prime Ministership (but was foiled in this by an oligarchic coup), or for that matter in the “new democracy” of Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz Party headed by Viktor Orbán recently rewrote electoral law to cement its dominance for what may be many decades to come, Putin has strictly abided by the letter of the Constitution. United Russia did not use its Constitutional majority to extend the number of allowed Presidential terms, transform Russia into a parliamentary republic, or tweaking electoral law away from proportional representation towards majoritarianism (this would have a far bigger effect in consolidating United Russia’s power than low-level electoral fraud – and be much less politically damaging besides).

While one might argue that Putin went against the “spirit of the Constitution” by seeking a third term, that is an inescapably vague and ambiguous concept, one suited only for rhetoric. If we are going to consider the “spirit” of things, would it not then be against the “spirit of democracy” to condemn Putin for returning to the Presidency when he remains by far Russia’s most popular politician, enjoying a 10% lead over Medvedev even during the latter’s heyday?

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Quiz: Did This Happen In Russia Or A Democratic Country?

Vile, vile election fraudsters...

Did you know that elections in Britain and the US are marred by mass fraud? At least that would be the inescapable  conclusion if they were to be subjected to the most popular methods to “prove” that Russian elections are rigged in favor of Putin and United Russia. Below I have a translated a delightful quiz by Mikhail Simkin, where you have to answer just one question: Did this happen in Russia or in a democratic country?

Some of the following weirdness happened in elections in Russia. They contradict the laws of mathematics and basic decency. They cannot be explained by anything other than mass falsifications. Some of the weirdness happened in democratic countries. They can be explained by natural causes. Can you identify which is which?

(1) The distribution of polling stations by the percentage of votes for the winning presidential candidate in their region.

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The Provincialization Of Russian Electoral Fraud

Analysis of the election data is now trickling in, so I feel I can now make some real preliminary estimates of the degree of fraud (eventually, I will compile a list of estimates as I did for the 2011 elections). My assessment is that in these elections it was on the order of 3%-4%, which is lower than my estimated range of the 5%-7% fraud in the Duma elections, but still far too high by developed country standards. The geographical distribution of fraud has changed significantly: Moscow actually appears to be very clean this time wrong (in stark contrast to 2011, and 2009). However, there were little to no changes for the better in the ethnic minority republics, which is where the great bulk of the falsifications are now concentrated.

The most reliable evidence, in my opinion, is the FOM exit poll which gave Putin a vote of 59.3% in contrast to the 63.6% official tally – a difference of slightly more than 4%. (VCIOM gave him 58.3%, but I consider it slightly less reliable: It polled 63 regions, to FOM’s 81, and the missing regions included places like Ossetia and Daghestan where support for Putin is higher than average – even if so is the level of falsifications). Below is a table of regional falsifications, courtesy of Kireev. As you can see, the highest discrepancies between official and exit poll results – and the only ones exceeds the margin of error – are now in Federal Districts with many national ethnic minority republics: North Caucasus (Daghestan, Chechnya, etc), the Urals (Tatarstan, Bashkortostan), and the South (Kalmykia, Adygea). Across Russia as a whole, the discrepancy was 4.3%, relative to 6.3% in 2011.

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My (Second) Article On The Russian Elections At Al Jazeera

Here it is: Reading the Russian election.

Please comment at their site, rather than here, if possible.

And The Wheel Spins On

“Despite it being a sad and fearful prospect, in my opinion a totalitarian reversion for a certain period of time is possible. But the danger lies not in the law enforcement agencies, the power organs, and not even the Army, but in our own mentalities – our people’s, our population’s, in ourselves. It all seems to us – and I admit it, at times it seems that way to me as well – that if we restore order with a firm hand then our lives will become better, more comfortable, and more secure. In fact, this sense of comfort will pass by quickly, because that same firm hand will soon start to strangle us. We will feel it on ourselves and on our families. It is only under a democratic system that officers from the law enforcement agencies – whether they are the KGB, MVD, NKVD, or go by some other name – know that tomorrow could see a replacement of the political leadership in their country, region, or city, and that they would have to answer this question: “Did you comply with the laws of your country? How did you treat the citizens under your power?” – Vladimir Putin, 1996.

“When Russia has no Tsar, there appears a Time of Troubles. When the supreme power weakens, civil war flares up. You understand, the precise name – Tsar, President, General Secretary, Chairman of the Supreme Council – has no relevance whatsoever. There has to be a strong power, a strong executive. If there is no strong power – there will be no united Russia, but constant wheeling-dealings, violence and reprisals.” – Boris Nemtsov, 1997.

Is The US Still A Liberal Democracy?

In the years since 9/11, the US has built a mosaic of national security powers that undermine its claim to be the “land of the free.” According to this useful summary by Jonathan Turley, these include: Assassination of its own citizens; warrantless searches; use of secret evidence and secret courts; the rise of an unaccountable surveillance state (more on that by Glenn Greenwald). This is in addition to hosting the world’s largest prison population (both in relative and absolute numbers), which includes what for all intents and purposes can be considered a transnational Gulag as part of its efforts in the endless-by-definition “war on terror.” At least for many Muslims and minorities, the US has already not been a liberal democracy for a long time.

But at what point can a country be considered to have definitively retreated from liberal democracy? After all, though much of the above are common to authoritarian states, they are sometimes present in liberal democracies too; and besides, the US does have some mitigating features (e.g. strong freedom of speech provisions that are relatively free from PC and libel laws, unlike in the UK and much of Europe).

The argument can be made that the US ceased being a liberal democracy on December 31, 2011 – the day the NDAA 2012 was signed into law by Obama. This legalizes the indefinite detention of US citizens by the military on the mere suspicion that the suspect is “associated with” terrorism or committed “belligerent acts” against the US or its allies. Bearing in mind the incredibly broad and flexible definition of what “terrorism” actually means, this could potentially encompass any number of anti-elite groups: Anonymous, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, etc.

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The Argument For Compulsory Voting In Russia

One of the central (I would argue, the central) conundrum of all discussions about Russian elections fraud at the macro-scale is that the major pieces of evidence simply don’t fit together.

On the one hand, you have pre-elections polls that uniformly gave United Russia 50% or more of the vote; in fact, the last Levada and VCIOM polls revealed before the elections gave it 53% and 54%, respectively. The real result was 49.3%. The 0% Club then argued: “Of course fraud must have been minimal, just look at those polls! If anything, United Russia rigged the elections against itself!”

These polls, of course, present big problems not only to the 15% Club – who tend to dismiss them out of hand, or conspiratorially (and implausibly) claim they only give the results the Kremlin orders them to – but to the 5% Club. After all, the polls’ margins of error are only 3% or so, and besides, there are dozens of them – if they consistently give United Russia an average of about 53% and the 5% Club (by definition) believes its honest result should be 44% or so, then that’s a big problem!

Reconciling these contradictions has been neglected, but is highly necessary in a time when questions about the true extent of fraud are becoming burning political issues. I will try to provide a short preliminary hypothesis here.

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Measuring Churov’s Beard: The Mathematics Of Russian Election Fraud

In the aftermath of the 2011 Duma elections, the Russian blogosphere was abuzz with allegations of electoral fraud. Many of these were anecdotal or purely rhetorical in nature; some were more concrete, but variegated or ambiguous. A prime example of these were opinion polls and exit polls, which variably supported and contradicted the Kremlin’s claims that fraud was minimal. But there was also a third set of evidence. Whatever problems Russia may have, a lack of highly skilled mathematicians, statisticians and programmers certainly isn’t one of them. In the hours and days after the results were announced, these wonks drew on the Central Electoral Commission’s own figures to argue the statistical impossibility of the election results. The highest of these fraud estimates were adopted as fact by the opposition. Overnight, every politologist in the country – or at least, every liberal politologist – became a leading expert on Gaussian distributions and number theory.

While I don’t want to decry Churov, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, for making subjects many people gave up back in 8th grade fun and interesting again, I would like to insert a word of caution: lots of math and numbers do not necessarily prove anything, and in fact – generally speaking – the more math and numbers you have the less reliable your conclusions (not making this up: the research backs me up on this). Complicated calculations can be rendered null and void by simple but mistaken assumptions; the sheer weight of figures and fancy graphs cannot be allowed to crowd out common sense and strong diverging evidence. Since the most (in)famous of these models asserts that United Russia stole 15% or more of the votes, it is high time to compile a list of alternate models and fraud estimates that challenge that extremely unlikely conclusion – unlikely, because if it were true, it would essentially discredit the entirety of Russian opinion polling for the last decade.

In this post, I will compile a list of models built by Russian analysts of the scale of electoral fraud in the 2011 Duma elections. I will summarize them, including their estimates of aggregate fraud in favor of United Russia, and list their possible weak points. The exercise will show that, first, the proper methodology is very, very far from settled and as such all these estimates are subject to (Knightian) uncertainty; but second, many of them converge to around 5%-7%, which is about the same figure as indicated by the most comprehensive exit poll. This is obviously very bad but still a far cry from the most pessimistic and damning estimates of 15%+ fraud, which would if they were true unequivocally delegitimize the Russian elections.

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My Article On The Russian Elections At Al Jazeera

The long-promised post is out, but not here but at Al Jazeera: Truth and falsifications in Russia. It has also been translated into Russian at (Правда и фальсификации в России).

In the spirit of democracy, I am adopting Alexander Kireev’s poll (kireev) to ask you guys what YOU think about how falsified these elections were. Please read the explanations of each option before voting, and to only judge these elections at the Russia level (as opposed to individual cities or districts). And don’t ballot stuff like La Russophobe! 😉

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