A Challenging Test for Democracy

by Robert Alan Dahl

        Western governments were understandably alarmed by the results of parliamentary elections in Russia on December 12, 1993. The relatively strong showings of ultra-nationalist movements and Communist Party allies and relatively poor performance of forces supportive of President Boris Yeltsin warrant concern about the consequences for Russia's political stability and economic reform efforts.
        For observers of voting systems, however, Russia's latest democratic experience should not be a complete disappointment. It is remarkable that elections could have taken place there at this time at all. It is encouraging that the democratic process and the fractious government produced by it appear to be viewed, at least for now, as legitimate.
        Nor should these recent elections be dismissed as an aberration unworthy of study. Russia's experience not only provides further evidence of the difficulties in transforming a formerly totalitarian state to a democracy, but also suggests some problems in nominally "mixed" majoritarian/proportional systems.

Election Context
        It is hard to imagine democratic elections being successfully conducted under more challenging circumstances (for a comparatively advanced society) than those in which voting was held in Russia on December 12th. Voting took place among an electorate dealing with:
        • the still recent collapse of the Communist system and dissolution of the U.S.S.R.;
        • a disintegrating command economy and the insecurities of market reform, marked by severely declining living standards and rampant poverty and crime;
        • months of political stalemate between Parliament and President Yeltsin, ended by Yeltsin's extra-constitutional call for new Parliamentary elections, which created a constitutional crisis and culminated in violent confrontation only ten weeks before election day.
        The volatile election setting was exacerbated by:
1) an extremely complicated voting process for candidate and party list elections and the constitutional referendum; 2) a lack of cultural familiarity with the institutions and processes of a civil society or experience with political participation, including the absence of coherent political movements or cohesive party organizations; and 3) a very brief election period.
        In this environment, and given the disunity and political ineptness of the pro-reform Russia's Choice coalition (and the shrewdness of their opponents), the electoral result should not have been surprising.

Ballots and Voting Process
        At polling sites on election day, Russians were given four ballots with quite distinct purposes and voting procedures: a ballot for the constitutional referendum; two ballots for deputies to the State Duma (lower house of the new Federal Assembly), including one based on proportional representation; and a ballot for representatives to the Federation Council (upper house). Some localities, including Moscow, simultaneously conducted local elections, and their voters received five ballots.
        The ballot for the referendum on the new constitution followed the traditional Russian method of voting: cross out the answer of which you do not approve (cross out "NO" if you favor adoption, etc). This negative approach was used in last April's referendum, and is a throwback to Communist days when only one candidate appeared on election ballots (and prudent Russian citizens would not bother visiting a voting booth before casting their ballot).
        Half of the 450 deputies to the State Duma were elected through a nationwide party list vote from which seats were allocated by proportional representation -- with the results tabulated separately, unlike Germany's proportional system. Parties and electoral coalitions qualified their candidate lists for this election by obtaining at least 100,000 signatures on petitions, no more than 15% from any one "subject" of the Russian Federation (republic, region, oblast, etc); several party lists were rejected by the Central Election Commission (CEC) for failing to gain signatures from at least seven different regions.
        The ballot listed each party or coalition and the names of three candidates from its list. The election law also provided for regional lists -- the listed names varying by region, and distribution within party lists of awarded seats weighted by relative success in particular regions. Voters were to make one mark on this ballot in the box corresponding to the party they supported, and were also provided the dissenting choice of marking for "against all candidates."
        The other 225 deputies to the State Duma were elected in new single-member districts. Candidates qualified for this election either by being nominated by a party or coalition that had already qualified for the nationwide party list vote or by collecting petition signatures equal to one percent of their electoral district (about four or five thousand).
        For these single-member district elections, voters were to make one mark on this ballot corresponding to the candidate they supported, and again were given the choice of "against all candidates." Significantly, candidates on this ballot were not identified by party affiliation or independent status, and the proportional party-list vote did not have any compensating effect or bear any other relationship to the single-member constituency vote outcome.
        Voters from each subject of the Russian Federation chose two representatives to the Federation Council (which is somewhat analogous to the U.S. Senate, but has a less important role in legislating). The nomination and voting procedures were similar to candidate elections to the State Duma, except voters were to mark two choices on the Federation Council ballot. The Federation Council election justifiably received less foreign attention, but it is noteworthy that successful candidates tended to be regional government leaders that were more supportive of Boris Yeltsin than State Duma winners.

Election Period and Administration
        President Yeltsin dissolved the Parliament on September 21st, calling for new elections to be held on December 12th. The law governing the election process for the State Duma (which became the model for the other election procedures) was enacted by Presidential Decree on October 1st, just three days before tanks shelled the Parliament building.
        The calendar set forth in these regulations for the remaining ten-week election period indicates the daunting responsibilities in preparation for voting faced by election administrators (particularly the CEC), candidate and political groups, and voting public.
        These responsibilities included:

        • creation by the CEC of 225 new single-member constituency districts;
        • naming members of constituency election
        • naming polling site commission members by
         local governments;
        • preparation of voter registries by local authorities;
        • submitting candidate lists and collecting
         signatures by political parties and coalitions;
        • submitting petitions by candidates for Federation
         Council and State Duma single-member district
         constituency seats;
        • allocation of free media time to candidates and
        • voter education;
        • campaigning;
        • printing and distribution of ballots;
        • preparation of polling sites;
        • pre-election ("absentee") voting and ;
        • adjudication of complaints and grievances.

        Under the political circumstances, in a country with eleven time zones, 105 million voters and 95,000 polling sites, it is astonishing these myriad and difficult steps in the election process were achieved mostly on schedule and that elections were held without serious administrative problems. The accomplishment is even more impressive considering the Central Election Commission did not really exist and had no offices or staff at the time elections were called.

Lessons for Voting System Analysis
        A wholly new system of representative government and voting was created and implemented for the December elections in Russia, including the innovation of a "mixed" proportional vote for the State Duma. As noted earlier, however, this mixed system was of the bifurcated type: the proportional awarding of mandates for the State Duma was not related to, and did not have any compensating effect for, the winning of seats (and "wasting" of votes) in single-member constituencies for the same body. Nor did Russian voters have an opportunity to favor individual candidates within party lists, as occurs in proportional systems using "open lists."
        While the combination did provide some of the advantages of both proportional and majoritarian systems, the voting results suggest the Russian electorate was unable to articulate a coherent political choice in these elections. The results, though broadly representative, seem simply muddled. The lack of connection between the two voting processes for the State Duma was demonstrated not only by the quite different successes of the political parties under the two voting systems, but by the fact independent candidates won more than half the constituency-level seats. Ironically, under these circumstances, the proportional party-list vote may be seen as contributing less to political stability and thoughtful voter choice than the candidate voting.
        It must be acknowledged, however, this outcome was heavily influenced by immediate political factors and not just systemic weaknesses. Most important was voter unhappiness with economic conditions and general disillusionment with change. Party list balloting created an opportunity for a protest vote. Also, the ultra-nationalists were very effective in their use of populist rhetoric and television appeals, and led the pack in nationwide voting at about 23% (which, because it was tabulated centrally and reported first, became the primary focus of world attention); however, they did poorly in recruiting, qualifying and electing candidates for the single-member constituency voting.
        The Russian elections also illustrate the voter information problems that arise when introducing complicated voting systems. In a society unfamiliar with democratic elections or institutionalized and competitive political parties, initiation of a party-list proportional voting system (with a regional weighting component) would alone have required extensive voter education efforts. Combined in an election process involving a constitutional referendum that utilized an archaic negative cross-out style of voting, and candidate elections for two legislative chambers involving both an affirmative one-candidate and a two-candidate voting choice, it is understandable how Russian voters might have been somewhat confused and discouraged by their task.
        Voters complained of the procedures' complexity, and election observers noted substantial problems with spoiled ballots: crossing out party or candidate names, votes for more than one party, marks for individual names on party lists, etc.
        Both the phenomena of contradictory election results and voter confusion show that imposition of new election systems, often driven by scholarly theory and political compromise, may have unexpected and unsatisfactory consequences, at least initially.

Prospects for Democracy in Russia
        Russia's recent elections were fairly successful as an administrative matter, but it is not yet certain they represent a step forward in an ongoing process of democratic development. As the Russians continue to grapple with economic adversity, social upheaval and political tensions, it is clear the real rest for democracy in Russia still lies ahead. Yet there is reason to hope the Russian people will continue down the road of genuinely democratic reform, learning from their experiences and adapting or discarding Western voting methods as their cultural and political needs require.

        Robert Alan Dahl is an attorney in Washington, D.C. specializing in U.S. campaign finance issues and election systems in emerging democracies. Mr. Dahl has consulted extensively in Eastern Europe and the former U.S.S.R. on election laws, voting procedures and civic education. He recently served as on-site project manager in Moscow for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in providing technical assistance to Russia's Central Election Commission.

Table of Contents