20 years under Putin: a timeline

Russia’s electoral system is once again being revamped: under new rules, the number of regional and municipal lawmakers who are elected from party lists will be reduced by half. The goal of the ruling party is to maintain control despite its rapidly falling popularity. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza contends that the reform may actually have the opposite effect.



The debate between first-past-the-post and proportional electoral systems is a classic one in political science. Discussions have been ongoing for decades, with both sides’ arguments being well known and equally convincing: a direct link between a lawmaker and his or her constituents and a stable parliamentary majority in one case; a broader representation of political forces and a more direct correlation between the number of votes and the number of seats in the other. In the end, everyone makes a choice according to his or her own subjective priorities. Some countries, like Germany, prefer to maintain a balance between the two systems, with both constituency and list deputies in their parliaments.

Not one of these arguments—on one side or the other—has any relation to the actions of the Russian government, which changes the electoral system to suit its own political interests. This was the case in 2004, when the State Duma rubberstamped the Kremlin initiative to abolish individual electoral districts and form the lower house of Parliament exclusively using party lists. At the time, the Kremlin’s aim was to rid the Duma of the few remaining independent lawmakers (such as Vladimir Ryzhkov and Mikhail Zadornov, who managed to win their districts even in the 2003 elections, described by international observers as “free, but not fair”) and to keep real opposition out of Parliament. Controlling the registration process for national parties and national lists of candidates is naturally easier than controlling thousands of candidates in hundreds of individual districts.

The Russian government changes the electoral system to suit its own political interests.

The same process, albeit in reverse, is taking place today. In mid-September, the State Duma passed the first reading of a bill that would increase the share of first-past-the-post district legislators in regional and municipal parliaments from 50 percent to 75 percent. The same rule is likely to be adopted for the State Duma in time for the 2016 elections.

After the forced liberalization of the party system, which followed the mass protests of December 2011 and the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in favor of the Republican Party of Russia, the list system ceased to guarantee the political monopoly of the ruling party and its satellites. This was especially true given the results of the 2011 parliamentary elections, when—even without a real choice, and even according to official figures—more than half of Russian voters rejected Putin’s United Russia party. In the new circumstances, the Kremlin decided to rely on individual first-past-the-post districts in the hope that its still-formidable administrative resources and the nomination of formally “independent” candidates (who are, in reality, loyal to the regime) would allow it to maintain control over the legislative branch.


If new rules are introduced before the 2016 parliamentary elections, only 112 out of 450 seats in the State Duma will be allocated to political parties.


It seems that the decisive argument for the Putin administration was the recent election for Moscow mayor, when the main opposition candidate received some 30 percent of the vote. The prospect of a large opposition caucus in the Moscow City Duma after the 2014 elections is not a welcome one for the current authorities, either in City Hall or in the Kremlin.

According to its authors’ intent, the current electoral reform (or, rather, counter-reform) bill would minimize the opposition’s representation in legislative bodies without the need for mass vote fraud, which could lead to new mass protests. In Moscow, for instance, only 11 of the 45 members of the City Duma would be elected on a proportional basis. Thus, even if the opposition manages to present a strong list of candidates and once again garner 30 percent of the vote, it can count on just three or four seats in the Moscow legislature. Meanwhile, parties that receive less than 9 percent of the vote will not get any representation at all. (It must be added that electoral coalitions of parties are still prohibited in Russian elections.) In St. Petersburg, the liberal Yabloko Party won 6 seats in the 50-seat Legislative Assembly after (officially) receiving 13 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections. Under the proposed new rules, the same result would give them one or, at best, two seats. In the Yaroslavl region, the People’s Freedom Party overcame the 5 percent threshold in the September 8 election and elected Boris Nemtsov to the Duma. The Kremlin is now attempting to deprive him of his seat through a criminal investigation. Had the new rules already been in effect, all this trouble (and reputational damage) could have been avoided.

The Kremlin’s decision could backfire. Independent politicians who do not depend on the presidential administration could well win elections in their districts.

The regime’s ideal scenario for the 2014 regional elections and for the 2016 elections to the State Duma would be an exemplary “fair” vote, in which Kremlin opponents would be allowed on the ballot, two or three opposition lawmakers with no real influence would be elected to “let off steam,” and a loyal pro-regime majority would be established. But Kremlin scenarios, of course, are not always realized—especially in the context of growing opposition sentiments in Russian society. In the Moscow mayoral election, the Kremlin wanted to kill two birds with one stone: attain legitimacy in a competitive vote and show that its opponents have no public support. The result was the opposite of what was intended: the regime’s candidate struggled to win 50 percent of the vote, even with manipulations with home voting and a nearly 100 percent turnout at old people’s homes and psychiatric wards, while the opposition showed its strongest result in more than a decade.

The Kremlin’s decision to rely on first-past-the-post districts could equally backfire. Independent, locally popular politicians who do not depend on the presidential administration in Moscow could well win elections in their districts—it is doubtful the Kremlin would be able to control the result in all 338 districts across the country (if we assume that the same 75 percent proportion will be used in the 2016 parliamentary elections). Meanwhile, with thoughtful coordination and a responsible approach, the opposition parties’ joint candidates could receive a plurality of votes in dozens of electoral districts, once again turning the State Duma into a place for real discussion.

The Kremlin’s problem lies neither in the districts or the lists, nor in selecting the “right” voting system. There comes a time when no amount of manipulation can stop a rising public protest against a government that has long overstayed its welcome.