Radio Free Europe
Article discusses a proposal
by the powerful Unified Russia Party to raise the minimum threshold
of votes that parties would need to gain seats in the parliament. If
passed, such a measure would decrease the ability of smaller parties
to participate in government.
Russia: Centrists Propose Changing Electoral
By Gregory Feifer
October 18, 2002
Since Russian President Vladimir
Putin came to power over two years ago, he has done much to carry
out his promise of strengthening centralized power. The pro-Kremlin
Unified Russia party is now proposing to further consolidate the
country's political forces by changing parliamentary election rules.
It wants to raise the minimum barrier from 5 to 7 percent for blocs
of political parties to make it into the Duma. The centrists say
that would help create a system of two or three main parties
necessary for an efficient legislative process. But a chorus of
criticism -- not least from those parties that would be excluded
under the new barrier -- says Unified Russia wants to waylay the
democratic process for its own purposes.
Moscow, 18 October 2002
(RFE/RL) -- Things are good for the Unified Russia party. The
pro-Kremlin alliance of four centrist groups controls around 240 of
the Duma's 450 seats, allowing it to dominate parliament and ram
through many of the government's bills.
The party now wants to make
things even better. It proposes to cut down on the number of small
parties it says only slow things down by criticizing the government
instead of helping craft legislation.
Members of the centrist group
think Russia needs no more than two or three parties to work at
maximum efficiency. To that end, they propose changing the country's
electoral law to make it more difficult for small parties to be
elected to the Duma.
"Experience has shown parties breed like
cockroaches," Oleg Morozov, head of the Russia's Regions Duma
faction, said in remarks reported by "Izvestiya" newspaper. Russia's
Regions is a member of Unified Russia.
Critics, however, say the
measure is actually aimed at muzzling dissent. Sergei Ivanenko,
first deputy head of the liberal Yabloko party -- which squeaked
into the Duma with 5.93 percent in elections in 1999 -- says the
move is "90 percent" directed at showing its usefulness to the
Kremlin: "This is a political move, a public relations action
directed at demonstrating Unified Russia's significance to our
Unified Russia's proposals conform to President
Vladimir Putin's stated aim of strengthening centralized authority.
Since coming to office, the president has raised the hurdles that
organizations need to clear to become political parties and
participate in elections.
Putin, who says he wants to ensure
parties have broad national support, has moved to limit regional
power bases by cutting back the authority of the country's governors
and representatives in the Federation Council upper house of
Now, Unified Russia's likely proposal -- expected next
week -- would make it even more difficult for small parties with
narrow support bases. It recommends raising the barrier from 5
percent to 7 percent for landing seats in the Duma for blocs of
parties running together in parliamentary elections.
started by recently floating a proposal to raise the barrier to 12.5
percent for all parties, a position observers say was meant to set a
bargaining platform. Only Unified Russia and the Communist Party
would likely be able to pass that level.
The Kremlin's reaction
came from its administration deputy chief, Vladislav Surkov, who
said "Unified Russia's radical proposals are simply unacceptable."
Surkov, however, indicated that raising the barrier to 7 percent
was not only acceptable, but would actually help strengthen
political parties in the Duma. But he added the measure should only
be passed ahead of elections in 2007.
Central Elections Commission
chief Aleksandr Veshnyakov has also said 7 percent might be an
Unified Russia says it now plans to submit a bill
proposing the 7 percent barrier for consideration in the Duma late
There is a chance it may take effect before Duma
elections in December 2003, a possibility that irks critics
protesting what they say is one party's attempt to change the rules
to suit itself.
Most countries like Russia with systems of
proportional representation set the barrier for entry to parliament
at around 5 percent. Turkey's limit is the highest at 10 percent.
Unified Russia members cite the two-party system in the United
States as a goal. But political analysts point out that the United
States is qualitatively different because it has a majority
electoral system instead of proportional representation -- from
which the population votes for parties that draw up hierarchical
lists of representatives. In Russia, half the Duma's deputies are
elected from lists; the other half are elected from single-seat
Boris Makarenko, a political analyst at Moscow's Center
for Political Technologies, says Russia's political system is in
fact unsuited to a two-party system: "The
proportional-representation system never in the world produced
two-party parliaments or two-party political systems. Proportional
representation is about taking into account minority votes. If you
want a two-party system, you have to introduce a first-past-the-post
majoritarian system, like in most Anglo-Saxon countries or their
former colonies, such as India."
Unified Russia's proposal is still
being discussed in committee, and the bill the party says it will
submit to the Duma next week will likely not concern individual
parties, but electoral blocs of parties running together.
says that further watering-down makes the proposals senseless: "Not
one of the political parties represented in the Duma is planning to
run in the next elections in any kind of bloc. That's why the topic
is an academic one and will have no practical meaning, at least in
While Yabloko denounces any such measure, members
of the Duma's other main liberal party, the free-market Union of
Rightist Forces, or SPS, has cautiously backed the proposal. Some
say the party may be motivated by a desire to force a union with the
The Communists, who have the most number
of Duma seats of any party, have largely remained indifferent,
saying a higher barrier would actually create further difficulties
for the Kremlin by focusing opposition around themselves and paring
down what is now a relative cacophony of criticism.
This is not
Unified Russia's first such initiative. The party has also pushed
for a new law that would require a minimum turnout in regional
elections or else have the president appoint governors and other
Yurii Korgunyuk, director of Moscow's Indem political
research group, says that Unified Russia is trying to alter the
political ground rules for its own advantage by forcing voters for
SPS, Yabloko, and other small parties to cast their ballots for
Unified Russia instead: "Where there are two-party systems, people
often don't vote for parties closest to their views because they're
afraid their candidate won't collect enough percentage and the votes
will be wasted, and therefore they vote for another party. That's
pretty much the same psychological expectation here."
agrees, saying Unified Russia's proposals reflect trouble within the
party: "[Unified Russia] has problems in its party-building. It's
obviously going badly. Under the Russian political tradition, if
something goes badly for you, change the rules of the game if you
can. Make things difficult for your opponents."
Makarenko says the
most obvious victims of the proposal would be parties with ratings
just above 5 percent. Those include liberals Yabloko and SPS as well
as two parties behind the bill: the ultranationalist Liberal
Democratic Party and the People's Deputy group, a member of Unified
Each percentage point raised is a real threat to those
parties, representing 1 million voters counting the total number of
voters, or around 600,000 considering the average voter turnout.
Russia is the world's most populous country with a system of
The Justice Ministry has registered
around 30 parties since Putin's new law went into effect last year.
Like Yabloko member Ivanenko, Makarenko says Unified Russia's
proposal is a tool to exercise influence among smaller parties, but
adds that he doubts the measure will be passed in consideration this time around.