Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 8

By Alexander Kynev

The role of political parties in regional elections has acquired particular significance over the past year and as Russia’s December 2003 State Duma elections approach. Two contradictory trends are apparent. On the one hand, there has been a weakening of party structures in the regions. On the other, however, the federal center is trying to force regional elites to create a party structure, one that is capable of becoming the basis for projecting the center’s power into the regions.

There are any number of examples which illustrate the first trend. In comparison with the campaigns of 1998, to cite one, candidates in 2002 were much less likely to invoke party membership in their electoral campaigns. Not a single governor was elected on the strength of his party affiliation, and even communist governors campaigned as independent candidates, above party membership. Even in regions that by tradition are politically active, candidates loyal to specific parties now carefully conceal their party membership. And the party organizations themselves do not generally participate directly in elections. In the traditionally “democratic” Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, not one candidate overly affiliated with a party was elected to the Legislative Assembly in the elections of March 2002. And there was likewise no one prepared to risk running as a candidate of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), even though the SPS had been stunningly successful there in the 1999 Duma elections.

In Saratov, the August 2002 oblast Duma elections were similarly dominated by independent candidates–who consisted mostly of directors and bureaucrats. Only one Communist Party (KPRF) member was elected. Most of the independents presented themselves as members of United Russia, despite the fact that the party has no apparatus there and actually embraces the whole of the regional elite (albeit fragmented into warring clans).

In the traditionally “red” Krasnodar Krai, the 1998 elections were completely dominated by the Fatherland movement of Governor Nikolai Kondratenko, which captured more than forty of the fifty seats. For 2002 the region switched from multi-mandate to single-seat constituencies, a change that reduced the role of the party structures. Kondratenko’s Fatherland took thirty-two seats, the KPRF thirteen, and United Russia, the Liberal Democrats (LDPR) and Agrarian Party (APR) just one each.

St Petersburg’s 1998 Legislative Assembly elections were notable for the intense rivalry between party teams, in particular Yabloko and the Yury Boldyrev bloc. In the 2002 elections, however, independent deputies took 31 seats, leaving Yabloko with just five, United Russia with nine, and the Communist-Nationalist grouping with five.

The role of parties in Karelia’s 2002 Legislative Assembly elections was similarly minimal, though all the main parties had previously enjoyed strong representation. Almost every party deputy was forced out in the 2002 elections and the newly elected nomenklatura was divided between United Russia and the National Party.

The same trend has continued this year. Governors are energetically opposing efforts to impose on their regions elections based on party lists. And it is likely that the governors will be able to find public support for their stance. Experience shows that the electorate tends to focus on local issues in regional voting, while being prepared to vote in the abstract for conventional paradigms (left-wing, democratic, patriotic) in national elections.

The decay of regional party networks is the result of both a general lessening of the authority of parties at the national level, and an increase in the authoritarian character of the current political regime–that is, the expansion of the authority of a non-party president alongside the erosion of influence of the State Duma. The party networks have no power and have not learned how to lobby effectively. There are, meanwhile, signs of boredom with party brands and politicians. Electoral turnout is falling, and identification with a party is now more of a hindrance than a help for candidates running for election.

Indeed, regional structures, including even those affiliated with parties that were trying to create effective organizations in the 1990s, are effectively being destroyed or virtualized. This is true of the LDPR, Yabloko and the SPS. Most of their regional organizations are now in a “latent” state, pending cash injections for the federal campaign. It remains the case that the most “animated” regional network is that of the Communist Party. Nonetheless, the number of left wing deputies in the legislatures of the “red regions” has fallen off, and many “red” governors have been publicly distancing themselves from the KPRF.

United Russia, much like the other “parties of power” that have preceded it, is a creature of the nomenklatura and something of a virtual brand. As an organized structure, one capable of running an election campaign, United Russia is almost non-existent.

Regional party apparatuses are increasingly being molded by the interests of financial-industrial groupings or personal interest groups, which simply use the party brand or imprimatur as an electoral device. In some regions, local party branches have effectively been transformed into public relations teams ready to work for anyone who can pay ready cash.

Up to now, most Russian regions have been using a single-round simple majority system to elect their deputies. This means that the main challenge for parties is to defeat independents rather than candidates from other parties. The two round majority system, used in some areas, makes it even more difficult for parties, since the non-party majority typically steamrollers the party candidate who makes it to the second round. So the electoral systems currently used in the regions are a direct impediment to the survival of Russia’s party system. It is apparently in response to this development that President Putin came up with a plan to impose a mixed electoral system on the regions.

The center’s desire to forcibly strengthen the role of the federal parties is evidenced by the new law on political parties, which bans the creation of regional parties. In addition, there is another new law which requires that at least half the seats in a regional legislature be allotted to candidates from party lists. This requirement comes into effect for elections taking place after July 14, 2003.

These measures presage revolutionary changes in the political systems of most of Russia’s regions, where the ensconced regimes generally operate with varying degrees of authoritarianism. Since 1993, some regions have already made use of the mixed system to elect their legislative assemblies. These include Krasnoyarsk Krai; Sverdlovsk, Kaliningrad, Saratov and Pskov Oblasts; the republics of Marii-El and Tyva; and the Koryak and Ust-Ordynsk Buryat Autonomous Okrugs (AO). Aside from the Koryak AO, there is a 5 percent threshold for parties to enter the legislature in each of these regions.

In Marii-El, Tyva, Saratov, Ust-Ordynsk Buryat AO and Koryak AO, elections using party lists were held just once, and then the system was dropped. Since 1996, in fact, the number of regions using the mixed system has steadily decreased and only one new region–Pskov oblast–has introduced these list-based elections.

Even in these cases where party-list elections have taken place, the pattern has been for elections to assume a highly personalized character, and for federal parties to play only a negligible role. This is clearly illustrated by the successes enjoyed by such purely regional constructions as “Kuznetsov, Polozov, Savitsky–together for the future” in Pskov; “For Our Native Urals” and other blocs in Sverdlovsk Oblast; and the “Ours” bloc and the “Anatoly Bykov Bloc” in Krasnoyarsk. In Sverdlovsk, no branch of any of the federal parties, apart from the Communists, has ever managed a top three finish or earned more than 10 percent of the vote. The picture is much the same in Krasnoyarsk, where local blocs won the top three places in the 2001 elections. Neither the SPS, Yabloko nor the LDPR were able to secure even 5 percent of the vote in regional elections in Krasnoyarsk, Sverdlovsk or Pskov.

Most regional branches of national parties are wholly unprepared for the new conditions. They have been marginalized and their leaders effectively excluded from the local elite.

This strongly suggests that the regional elections will result in a renaissance of parties that are little known at the national level. Alongside this renaissance of small parties, the regional branches of existing parties will likely be colonized by people with financial and administrative means. This will exacerbate the problem of internal party unity and the inability of central party organs to control their own regional structures. Quite distinct organizations will be operating in different regions under the same party name.

There is no reason to believe that the new law will actually promote the diffusion of federal parties. As of January 20, 2003, fifty political parties were registered, yet it is practically impossible to find branches for most of them in the regions. And electoral blocs in regional elections may be formed not only by the branches of political parties, but also by national-level voluntary organizations. According to the Central Electoral Commission, 199 such voluntary political organizations have been registered.

One of the main arguments used by those who support the introduction of the new mixed proportional-majority system in the regions is that the strengthening of the “party vertical” will promote national unity. They have decided to fight the regional parties at a federal level by banning them. But this is highly unlikely to be effective. It is better to have regional parties appearing and registering openly rather than having them hide behind blocs of non-existent regional branches of federal parties.

Still, there are grounds for cautious optimism that the reform will have positive effects on the role of regional legislatures over the long term.

For example, the introduction of mixed elections is likely to make regional politics more competitive. Regional parliaments will become much more independent of their governors, and will serve as places where various interest groups can be represented. The current majority system frequently leaves the political opposition totally unrepresented in local assemblies. Even in cases where the opposition has the support of 10-15 percent (and sometimes 30-40 percent) of the population, an unpopular governor can put forward for election local “heavyweights”–directors, doctors, and others, all of whom are wholly dependent on the administration. These are people who are guaranteed to win.

A second possible benefit will be on the quality of the legislatures’ work. The current system produces regional assemblies that are often dominated by motley crews of lobbyists. The doctor, for example, wants more money for his hospital, the director more contracts for his enterprise. Meanwhile, no one is taking an interest in long-term, strategic development. With proportional elections, however, party leaders should have more of a stake in the development of the whole region, rather than one small part of it.

One practical problem connected with the introduction of party list voting is the need to increase the size of legislatures. The law requires that 50 percent of deputies should be elected from the lists. Since incumbent deputies will not want to merge the existing constituencies, the party list seats will probably be added on, increasing the size of the legislature.

Thus, it is possible to conjecture that the new electoral cycle will see some strengthening of the role and influence of the elected assemblies. During the first electoral cycle, from 1993-1996, most assemblies faced off against powerful, appointed governors. So the assemblies at least had the advantage of democratic legitimacy. But in the second and third electoral cycles, from 1996-2000 and from 2000-2004, there has been a weakening of the assemblies, which have had to coexist with elected governors.

Alexander Kynev holds a doctorate in political sciences and is an expert member of the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies (MIGPI).