Notes on Russian Democracy: Assessing the Recent Duma Elections
A couple of thoughts on the recent Russian Duma elections: First, and most obviously, this was a huge blow for Russian democrats. Putin’s party, United Russia, pulled in over 60% of the vote and they now hold 2/3rds of the seats in parliament, enough to override the objections of all other dissenting parties. The only significant opposition party that got over the 7% threshold was the Communist party, which is not considered to be a major threat (nor a strong proponent of democracy). The more moderate Yabloko party and the Union of Right Forces — which have presented the most organized opposition to Putin’s agenda — were both kicked out of the Duma entirely.
Second, this election saw the consolidation of United Russia as the country’s only powerful political party. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, few parties (save the communists) have stabilized. Most have failed to gain seats in more than two successive elections, and have quickly fallen apart. Analysts consider the lack of viable political parties in Russia to be a result of the super-presidential 1993 constitution that created a largely-powerless legislature. With no real clout to “bring home the bacon,” parties running for seats in the Duma find that they can’t offer their constituency much of anything and they are therefore unable to maintain popular support.
United Russia, in contrast, has survived several elections (they were founded back in 2001) and are showing no signs of slowing down. Why have they been able to buck the trend? There are several reasons for this, but perhaps most importantly is that United Russia is backed by both the country’s influential oligarchs and by the Kremlin. For the first time, there has emerged broad elite support for one political party. The result is a highly effective (and popular) organization with access to the halls of power that, unlike its counterparts, can actually get things done.
Third, this recent election has raised questions about the direction of Russian democracy. Most significantly, observers have become increasingly concerned that Russia will revert to the heavy-handed one-party rule that defined the Soviet era. Vladimir Putin, who is forced to step down next year and cede authority to a new president, is considered to be plotting how best to remain in power. The most popular theory is that he will appoint a loyal successor to replace him as president, but merely as a figurehead. Putin will then take over the prime ministership as the leader of United Russia and will continue to pull the strings as the country’s behind-the-scenes powerbroker. Or so the theory goes…
Interestingly, this may not be such a bad outcome. If Putin were to take over the prime minister’s job, he would undoubtedly try to bring power back to the legislature. That means that he would attempt to undercut the powers given to the president, and shift decision-making authority to the Duma. This could result in the rewriting of the Russian constitution, perhaps towards the adoption of a parliamentary system and away from the super-presidential system that is currently in place. In effect, Putin’s efforts to become an influential prime minister could lead to a more balanced system of powers and thereby strengthen Russian democracy in the long-term.