Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 11

The parliamentary election law tilts the system toward the executive

by James Voorhees*

Now that the latest political crisis in Moscow seems to haveended, and Yeltsin has set December 17 as the date forthe parliamentary elections, the campaign for the new Duma canbegin in earnest. Political parties and would-be legislators arenow searching for allies, and for money, and are gathering signaturesto get on the ballot.

The ground rules they must play by in this race were establishedby a law that cleared the Federal Assembly only after Boris Yeltsinvetoed the first version and forced changes in the second. Asfinally enacted, the Duma election law was superficially littledifferent from its original version, but the differences are likelyto matter more than many might think.

There were four issues which divided the president and the parliament.One was the advantage which Yeltsin believed would come to thosewho could run on a party list. He believed that many parliamentarianswould run both on a party list and in single-member districts,as they had done in the 1993 elections. Although Yeltsin did notinclude this specific objection in his veto message, the law aspassed reflects his views. Now candidates in single-member districtsmust collect the signatures of at least 1 percent of the constituents,or some 5,000 people, but at least some of these can be from the200,000 needed by each party which wants to qualify for partylists.

A second disputed issue was the requirement that at least 50percent of the electorate had to participate for an election ofany given deputy to be declared valid. The Duma sought to reducethis requirement to 25 percent and, although Yeltsin wanted itleft unchanged, he conceded the point to the Duma. As a result,Russia is unlikely to face the electoral problems which have plaguedvoting in Belarus and Ukraine.

A third point concerned the Duma’s proposed requirement thatpublic officials and journalists running for the Duma leave theirjobs during the campaign. According to the Russian constitution,Duma members cannot have their old jobs as well. But the Dumaconceded the point to Yeltsin, who sought to defend the "partyof power" around Chernomyrdin, and agreed that "afterregistration, a deputy candidate is not entitled to use his officialposition to promote his election interests." Electoral practicearound the world suggests that this rule will be honored in nameonly.

And fourth was the issue of the split between the number of deputieselected from single-member districts and those chosen by partylists. The Duma favored the status quo–an even split–while Yeltsinand the Federation Council wanted two-thirds of the seats to bechosen in single-member districts. All too often, Yeltsin suggested,the parties represented Moscow, rather than local interests. Hedid not say, but certainly believed, that the parties were moreindependent of the executive branch than locally chosen officialswere likely to be.

In the event the status quo was retained, but Yeltsin gainedas a result of an apparently small amendment. Under the new law,no party could have more than 12 candidates from Moscow on itslist of candidates. The Duma reconciliation commission clearlyintended that these 12 would include the leadership of the parties,but it is uncertain whether that will happen. The Duma alreadycontains a number of people who were elected from regions butwho are simply part of the Moscow elite. Among the most prominentof these are foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev who "represents"Murmansk, and Sergei Baburin, who votes for Omsk.

This clause will tend to restrict the institutionalization andgrowth of the country’s political parties and thus tilt the playingfield toward the executive branch and its candidates in the "Russiais Our Home" political bloc. At the present time, there are123 parties and movements registered with the Russian justiceministry. Agreement on the 12 nominations from the central listwill undoubtedly lead to splits and resignations, leaving manyparties weaker than they are now. And others will be casualtiesof the 5 percent of the vote barrier needed to get into the parliamentat all.

Some parties will certainly have to change their lists to accommodatethe political shifts in the country. In 1993, all reformist andmoderate parties had more than 12 Moscow-based candidates on theirparty lists. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalists also had morecandidates from the center, even though his party was more successfulin the provinces. Now, the new limit will put pressure on hisparty as well. On the other hand, the Communists and the Agrarians,who had few candidates from Moscow and who won few seats on partylists in 1993, may be positioned to do better this time around.

This clause is already having a stifling effect on the formationof the center-left bloc which Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin was supposedto assemble as a balance to Chernomyrdin’s "Russia is OurHome" bloc of the establishment. Rybkin has been unable torecruit the Agrarians who should have been the core for such aparty, precisely because of the 12 candidates from Moscow limit.And as a result, Rybkin’s party may prove stillborn. This limitmay also weaken Chernomyrdin’s group although much less so becauseof its regional ties, particularly if Sergei Shakhrai and hisPRES party find the 12 seat limit too limiting.

Yeltsin’s approach to the dispute over the electoral law suggeststhat he wants to weaken the political parties still further, andthus be able to rely on the regional bosses who already form thecore of the Federation Council. His opposition to elections forthat body is further evidence of this. But Yeltsin may find eventhese regional bosses to be less pliable in the future, becausemany disputes between Moscow and the provinces remain to be resolved,particularly if he allows more governors to be elected as he hasin Sverdlovsk and Nizhny Novgorod.

*James Voorhees works as a consultant to the CongressionalResearch Service. The views presented here are his own.