Insights from the Russian parliamentary elections

September 26th, 2016   News | Russia

September 18, elections were held in Russia to the State Duma, the lower house of the country’s legislature. Sotiris Delis, member of parliament from the Swedish Moderate party, describes in an article for Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation his insights from observing the elections with the Organization for Security and Stability in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). 

Elections to the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, State Duma, took place on September 18, 2016. It was my first observation mission in the OSCE-PA framework and an important experience for myself, as it gave me an insight into a country’s efforts to move closer to democracy. My findings do not differ significantly from the preliminary conclusions of the OSCE report that the reader can find at www.oscepa.org

Ten observers from Sweden participated in the mission. From OSCE/ODIHR 20 experts and 64 long term observers. During the observation day a total of 482 observers from 44 countries attended.  The observation assignment comprehended observing the opening of the polling stations, the election procedures, the vote counting, deviations from the election procedures, etc.

The election was originally scheduled for December 4 but a decree was brought forward inter alia on the grounds that it would save money by coinciding with the elections to several regional parliaments.

This year’s State Duma election has reverted to a combined electoral system. Half of the 450 MPs are elected in single-member constituencies where the candidate who gets the most votes wins the mandate. The other 225 seats are elected by proportional representation from closed party lists with a 5% electoral threshold (has been lowered from 7% to 5%) with the whole country as a single constituency. Before the elections 14 political parties registered with their 6500 candidates and 111 million eligible voters. The State Duma is elected on a single day for a term of five years.

New rules stipulate that parties that received at least 3 percent in the last election, or that have at least one place in any regional parliament, is automatically allowed to run. As a result 14 parties have participated this year, compared with seven in 2011.

The 2011 election resulted in huge protests across the country with allegations of electoral fraud. Prior to 2016 Ella Pamfilova, an international reputable human rights expert, was assigned the position as Chairman of the Central Electoral Commission Chairman. Before the elections we met Mrs. Pamfilova who repeatedly praised the election organization’s work with the aim that “competition, transparency and fair electoral process must prevail.”

Upon arrival to Moscow, my home base, I noticed hardly any indication that there was an election going on in the country. This means no posters with political messages, no political meetings or other election activities which we are accustomed to see in the West.

Most of the information the observers and I got was the result of intensive meetings with representatives of the main parties: United Russia, President Putin’s party and the biggest, the communist party, the nationalist liberal-democratic party, the left-wing party for a Just Russia, the Russians patriots, Yabloko, Parnas, Russia pensionist party, etc. In addition to the meetings with the political parties we also received information from Russian media representatives and civil society organizations.

Some of the opposition parties and social organizations expressed strong views about election procedures and that their implementation would lack transparency and would be characterized by democratic deficit. As I understood most of the discussions during the election campaign were about the socio-economic situation in the country, the political stability and foreign policy.

According to forecasts, interest in the election was low. A large part of the youth abstained. Participation was estimated at 48%. The election had a higher visible transparency degree. To my judgement, subtler methods were used by an increased and very detailed legislation. In some cases, the use of administrative resources by the ruling party in its favor and the unbalanced reporting by the national media to the regime’s advantage, may have limited the substance of the electoral process.

The fact that the election was held three months earlier than during the previous election year, and started in the middle of the Russian vacation period, has been seen by many as a way to prevent the opposition from mobilizing. Opposition politicians talked about the difficulty to obtain permission for meetings and other activities. The legislation concerning public gatherings have been stricter. To demonstrate without a permit could be punished with imprisonment.

The majority of the Russian population get information from TV media. But most of the channels are state owned or are property of companies with close connections to the Kremlin. Between 63-91 % of the national media was favorable to the ruling party, United Russia and the President.

United Russia, Putin’s party, remains the biggest party at the State Duma. His popularity is built from his image as a strong leader, who, after years of economic and especially military humiliation has made Russia great, strong and proud again. Dissatisfaction has been growing for several years due to the strong downturn in the economy.

Sunday’s election is not likely to alter significantly anything. For Putin, it is just another step toward his real goal, to be elected president in 2018 for a further period of six years. Today it is hard to see what could stop him. Russia will continue to wait for real democracy. The voters’ apathy has its reasons.

Sotiris Delis
Member of Parliament, Sweden
Moderate Party

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