Recent Western commentary suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to change parliamentary election rules after his second two-term tenure in the Kremlin finally expires in 2024; but such news is hardly revelatory. In Russia, this scenario has been debated by experts since his return to the presidency in 2012 (Vedomosti, March 6, 2012); and in 2013, this author co-wrote a piece predicting that Putin would stay in power until at least 2030 (Cairn.info, 2013). But in the recent months, leaks from multiple high-profile officials elaborating on various scenarios to perpetuate Putin’s rule have appeared in the Russian media almost every week(Forbes.ru, June 21, 2018; RBC, April 23, 2019). Many insiders now indicate that the Constitution will definitely be rewritten prior to the upcoming parliamentary elections of 2021 (T.me/russica2, June 13). And here, it is worth noting the “conceptual” article on constitutional “adjustments,” written on July 17 by the chairperson of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, in Parlamentskaya Gazeta, that the Kremlin is reportedly now “acquainting itself with” (Parlamentskaya Gazeta, RIA Novosti, July 17).
But Putin’s tenacious hold on power aside, the peculiarities of the Russian parliamentary system also deserve a closer examination because they suggest that the legislature was never considered to be a meaningful branch of authority inside Russia. It was always seen as a tool for preserving the ruling regime. And the legislative and administrative procedures carried out to ensure this date all the way back to the twilight of the Soviet Union.
Between 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”) was in full swing, and today, Russians have gone to the polls eight times to elect their parliament, which (to stress Russia’s “federal” nature) consists of two chambers—one representing the people, and another the regions. During the 1990 elections to the parliament (Supreme Soviet) of the then–Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the ruling Communists designed a two-step voting system: 1,068 people’s deputies were all elected in single-seat electoral districts by an absolute majority and requiring at least 50 percent turnout to make the vote effective. But of these, 252 Supreme Soviet members were chosen by the people’s deputies, with 126 allocated to the Soviet of the Republic and another 126 to the Soviet of Nationalities. This system, however, was used only once: afterwards, then-president Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet and crushed the armed revolt of the deputies by military force. A new bicameral parliament (Federal Assembly) was created, consisting of the lower State Duma and the upper Federation Council.
The first elections to both chambers occurred in December, 1993; the parliament was thought to be an interim one, so 450 Duma members and 171 Federation Council deputies were elected for only two years. Half of the Duma legislators were elected from party lists (the electoral threshold was set at 5 percent), and another half via direct vote in single-constituency districts; all Federation Council members were elected in two-seat electoral districts congruous with federal-level entities composing the Russian Federation.
The next elections, in 1995, differed greatly from the first: the Duma was elected by generally the same rules but for a four-year term; but the electoral turnout requirement was lowered from 50 to 25 percent. The Federation Council, meanwhile, was completely reworked: it would now be composed of the governors and the heads of regional legislative assemblies instead of separately elected representatives. Further reforms were implemented between 1999 and 2001. And since then, the Federation Council is composed of individuals sent there by the regional authorities—one selected by the governor and the other by the local assembly (the terms of eligibility for these appointees have undergone further adjustments almost yearly).
Since 2003, new electoral changes have applied mostly to the Duma. In 2003, it was elected by the same rules but with a reformed Federation Council. But in 2007, elections in single constituencies were abandoned: the chamber was elected only by party lists, while the electoral threshold rose to 7 percent, with the minimum participation requirement completely terminated. Furthermore, the previously available option to vote “against all” was outlawed. Then, in 2011, the tenure of the deputies was extended from four to five years. The threshold that year remained at 7 percent; but any party that managed to win 5–6 percent of the vote would be entitled to a single seat, while a party with 6–7 percent of ballots could obtain two parliamentary seats (no faction fit into these ranges, however) (Europarl.europa.eu, March 4, 2011; Cikrf.ru, accessed July 24, 2019).
In 2016, the old principle of composing the chamber of both party candidates and individual deputies—in force before 2007—was restored with the same term of five years. And throughout the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of minor changes were introduced into the electoral laws, with the aim clearly to reduce the ability of independent candidates to infiltrate ballot lists. The ongoing battle and mass street protests over bans to opposition candidates registering for this year’s Moscow City Council elections proves this quite well (RFE/RL, July 20).
But returning to the matter of the 2021 national parliamentary election, the above-mentioned leaks suggest the share of the Duma deputies elected by party lists would decrease to 25 percent, while the Federation Council might be elected by the popular vote—as had happened once, almost thirty years ago, in 1993. Assuming those changes are actually adopted, it would mean that no Federal Assembly has ever been elected according to the same rules.
What all this illustrates is that the past three decades of constant parliamentary election amendments have been a key tool in assisting the executive in retaining power. Particularly (although not exclusively) since Putin’s rise to the Kremlin, the level of democratic access to the legislature has fluctuated with the relative power dominance of the presidency. When the president is more popular than is his trusted party, the share of deputies elected by party lists declines, and vice versa; when the opposition gains momentum or the “power vertical” system feels excessive pressure, the electoral threshold rises, while in “secure” times it may go down. In other words, each new electoral rule change was implemented to preserve the ruling regime’s ability to stay in power indefinitely. The same can be expected regarding the 2021 parliamentary election, thus ensuring that Russia’s authoritarian political system can perpetuate itself beyond Vladimir Putin’s “last” presidential term.