It was an interesting coincidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin recently initiated discussions about reinstating Russia's mixed electoral system by submitting a draft law to the Duma. The draft law logs in at 493 pages, with several addenda; I am still in the process of digesting all of the provisions. However, I have a few observations from my initial scan.
When I evaluate election rules, I strive to be attentive to elements in the statutory provisions that are critical for the contest to be "free and fair." Notably, I pay attention to regulations that address:
- Barriers to entry for candidates and parties (e.g., rules that enhance/restrict voter participation, and regulate contestation by parties and candidates).
- Campaign activities (e.g., rules that dictate how parties can be financed, how parties/candidates may communicate with voters).
- Casting, counting, and compilation processes (e.g., ballot design, threshold, method of recording votes, seat allocation formula).
- Oversight processes (e.g., rules governing domestic and international observers, or the media).
- Adjudication processes (e.g., rules addressing how appeals are managed by electoral commissions and/or courts).
The draft law would reinstate the mixed system that Russia abandoned prior to the 2007 parliamentary election. Notably, it would return to the system where 225 of the 450 seats would be selected via single-member constituencies** using a plurality vote, with independent candidates allowed to contest these seats and party-affiliated candidates permitted to dual-list.***
In my 2009 book, I suggested that the adoption of a national proportional representation system along with a higher threshold for Russia's 2007 election reflected an effort to centralize control over the legislature. Mixed systems permit local actors with strong connections to behave more independently through the single-member constituencies (and as my colleague Henry Hale pointed out in his 2006 book, non-party organizations can even emerge as substitutes for parties). Engineering this independence out of the party system seemed to be a priority at the time: eliminating constituency races and generating pro-Kremlin pseudo-opposition parties could have enhanced the authority of United Russia.****
Since that time, however, the UR brand has suffered, Russia has witnessed post-election protests, and President Putin has distanced himself from his former tandem partner Dmitriy Medvedev. Reinstating the mixed system has potential benefits and costs for President Putin, UR, and other actors. It is likely to encourage local variation, including the strengthening of local political machines. This change would especially come at a cost to UR which had been given an opportunity to become a dominant party brand across Russia. The mixed system is likely to encourage more contestation, although control over party and candidate registration could be used as an impediment to the political opposition.
The mixed system may also be more conducive to electoral fraud, in part because less effort may be needed to manufacture victories in districts compared to the potential costs of gaining additional seats in national-level PR. I often cite the example of Ukraine's 2002 parliamentary election in which the party-of-power won a seat by fewer than 2,000 votes in the Luhansk region; its candidate received 100% of the vote in local prisons that accounted for a couple thousand more votes than the victory margin. Control over local institutions facilitates control over the choice set (and the potential to keep out strong opposition contenders). Further, it potentially permits the acquisition of more seats with less manipulation, managed by local actors. Decentralization has costs, but it also expands the opportunities to win seats improperly and avoid detection.
The bill is currently slated for discussion in April, so more reflections will likely follow in the coming weeks.
*In Mister Twister, an old Soviet children's tale by Samuil Marshak, the eponymous character (an American billionaire and former government official) takes a trip to the Soviet Union with his dear daughter Susie. When he cannot find a hotel that excludes minorities - because the USSR is a society that embraces diversity - Susie suggests that they buy a house. In response, Mr. Twister tells her, "You aren't in Chicago, my dear!" This quote was a favorite of my recently departed "Russian mother," Olga Gulikova, who hosted me when I was researching my dissertation in Moscow many years ago. Olga used it in a context that differed from the Marshak story a bit, however. Whenever I was surprised or frustrated by some bureaucratic hurdle or other problem, she would repeat the phrase to remind me that "things don't work the same way here." I use it here for another reason - "Chicago-style politics" is shorthand for machine politics and corrupt electoral practices.
**The remaining 225 would be selected via proportional representation with national and regional lists and a 5% threshold. The draft law includes a provision to prevent a Kazakhstan-style outcome in which only one party receives all of the seats. If one party receives more than 50% of the PR vote, and no other party receives greater than 5%, the threshold is relaxed.
***Dual candidacy is noted in Chapter 6, Article 39, Line 10. In contrast, Ukraine's Constitutional Court has twice ruled that dual candidacy violates equal access rights because independent candidates cannot dual list. While Ukraine permitted dual candidacy in 1998, it was not available in 2002 or in 2012 after the mixed system was reinstated.
****It is also worth noting that these changes were part of a post-Beslan effort to centralize that included the elimination of local chief executive elections.