The incompetent many or the corrupt few?

Kremlin and Moscow Environs Aerial View

( – Grigorii Golosov – May 20, 2013)

Grigorii Golosov is Professor of Political Science, Project Director, Center for Democracy and Human Rights Helix, St. Petersburg

Recent protest rallies and continuing opposition sentiment have provoked the Kremlin into reform.  The first part of the process sees the partial return of regional governor elections, abandoned nine years ago in favour of appointment by the president. Democractic Russia should be very wary of the changes, thinks Grigorii Golosov

‘Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few’
–G.B. Shaw, Man and Superman

In 2012-13 the Russian government initiated serious reform of the institutional system that had come into being during the consolidation of electoral authoritarianism between 2004 and 2011. There were two reasons for this reform.

On the one hand, the wave of mass protests in Moscow and other cities at the end of 2011 came as a severe shock to the Kremlin. On 22 December 2011, in his last address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev felt it necessary to outline these reforms, an obvious reaction to the protests, intended to calm the situation. So the reform package included limited elements of political liberalisation.

On the other hand, the events of December 2011 were a strong signal that the political system had not kept up with expectations; it had failed and this was what triggered the protests. From the very beginning, the priority was to reform the system, maximizing its potential as the basis for the long term health of the regime. Indeed this idea of reform, a kind of authoritarian adjustment, had become central to government thinking as early as the late spring and summer of 2011.

A return to gubernatorial elections

In 2004 the system of direct elections for regional governors was replaced by their appointment from the centre, i.e. by the president. Officially, three candidates’ names would be put before regional parliaments for approval but, given that a failure to rubber stamp the president’s own choice could mean the dissolution of an assembly, together with the absolute local control exercised by governors, and the domination of the president’s ‘United Russia’ party in all these bodies, the results of these ‘elections’ would clearly be a foregone conclusion.

The new system immediately came under strong criticism from both liberal elements in Russia itself and observers elsewhere, many of whom considered it the key element of a clear swing towards authoritarianism in Russian politics. Interestingly enough, a return to direct gubernatorial elections was not one of the protest movement’s main demands in 2011, probably because its leaders were more focused on national issues.

At the same time, the Kremlin had every reason to expect that a return to the direct election of regional administrative chiefs would be seen by many Russians as a step towards political liberalisation. Indeed, of all the anti-democratic measures taken between 2005 and 2011, it was the abolition of these elections that aroused the greatest disapproval among the general public, and confidence in the appointed governors had fallen steadily. A poll conducted by the FOM market research company in June 2011 showed that only 21% of the population supported the new system, with 40% against it (and 38% ‘don’t knows’). So a reversion to elections looked as though it might boost the regime’s popularity.

The rationale and strategies behind authoritarian adjustment

One of the main reasons behind the abolition of gubernatorial elections in 2004 was the influence of governors on the results of national parliamentary elections. As key political players at regional level, they exercise a good deal of control over political life in their area in general, and the work of regional and local election commissions in particular. The extent of this control had become clear during the 1999-2000 parliamentary elections. Governors who were appointed, rather than elected, were naturally much more dependent on Moscow, and so had greater incentive to ensure a decisive victory for ‘United Russia’ in regional assembly elections. Basically, if the ruling party didn’t win a majority in your region, you were out.

The December 2011 elections revealed, however, that governors were losing their ability to guarantee a win for ‘United Russia’ at the more important, national level. In the first place, appointed governors enjoyed less authority in their regions than their elected predecessors. In a FOM poll in January 2011, 39% of respondents said they trusted their governors, but 36% said they didn’t (25% didn’t know), which reflected a considerable loss of confidence in regional heads.

In the second place, many appointed governors had no experience of organising elections where there would be a large turnout. The turnout for local and regional assembly elections is generally low, so with a bit of mobilisation of voters and some plain old rigging it’s not difficult to guarantee a ‘United Russia’ victory. But this is not true for more important elections, and in a regional context it is elections for governor that are the most important.

In other words, it seemed as though the appearance on the regional political scene of more trustworthy figures with more electoral experience could turn out to be a key element of the authoritarian adjustment of the system, and so the reinstatement of direct elections made the political agenda.

The legislative process

The idea of reinstating gubernatorial elections was first mentioned by Vladimir Putin at a press conference on 15 December 2011. The outline of the proposed new system was as follows: firstly, the ‘electability’ of governors would be conditional on a so-called ‘presidential filter’, i.e. the right of the president to approve, or not, the eligibility of a given candidate. And secondly, only parties represented in regional assemblies would have the right to nominate candidates.

In his final address to parliament a week later, Dmitry Medvedev referred to gubernatorial elections only briefly; evidently the main parameters of reform had already been decided by his about-to-be successor as president, Vladimir Putin. But the final version of the law passed on 2 May 2012 contained very significant changes (it should also be said that the law was passed and implemented with great rapidity). The definitive version had lost the clause giving regional party machines the sole right to nominate candidates and, although the ‘presidential filter’ concept remained, it was couched in very vague terms. Instead of the president having the right to veto candidates, and therefore to more or less control election results, the law set up a ‘municipal filter’, an idea first mooted at a meeting with politicians held by Dmitry Medvedev on 5 April 2012. Anyone wishing to register as a candidate for a gubernatorial election would have to collect a number of signatures from a specific number of members in a specific number of regional and/or municipal assemblies. But, given the nature of such bodies’ work and the almost total control exercised by governors over them, it was obvious that the main function of this ‘municipal filter’ was to exclude candidates not approved by the powers that be, whether party nominees or independents (and the law gave the regions the power to decide whether or not to allow independents to stand).

Then, in December 2012, Vladimir Putin proposed giving each region the right to decide how its head should be chosen, so that elections could once again be replaced by a different selection process, and this change passed into law on 2 April 2013. The alternative process involves parties represented in the Duma or regional assemblies each putting forward up to three candidates, out of which the president chooses a short list of three, one of whom is then selected by a simple majority vote in the relevant regional assembly. So far two regions, Dagestan and Ingushetia, have chosen this option.

On 14 October 2012 the new legislation was tested in five Russian regions: Amur, Belgorod, Bryansk, Novgorod and Ryazan. Although the main rules governing these elections were fixed at national level, the regions had considerable autonomy over the details, and it is worth noting that none of these elections had provision for self-nominated independent candidates. Altogether 32 candidates were nominated in the five regions, of whom 22 were registered and 17 actually balloted. The most common reason for candidates being refused registration was fairly predictable ­ their inability to pass through the ‘municipal filter’. Either they couldn’t collect enough signatures, or the signatures they collected turned out to be fake. [In some regions some candidates discussed in the media as serious contenders didn’t in fact stand for election, and in Ryazan one candidate withdrew after registration.]

In every region the election was won by the incumbent, and by a large majority, with their share of the vote ranging from 64% in Ryazan to 78% in Belgorod. As many analysts had predicted, the ‘municipal filter’ precluded the nomination of any strong ‘alternative’ candidates, so any ostensible rivalry for the vote was a sham. Even in those cases where the incumbent could not rely on either popularity with the voters or the support of the regional ruling group, the outcome of the election was decided by administrative machinations and/or backroom deals in which the Kremlin played an active role. This is of course no surprise, given that candidates, from whatever party, needed the signatures of local ‘United Russia’ assembly members. So the most one can say about last autumn’s elections is that at best they allowed voters to choose between candidates pre-selected by the regime, out of whom only one ­ the current governor ­ was usually in any way convincing.

Problems and challenges for the democratic movement

The ‘big three’ forces in regional politics ­ incumbent governors, ‘United Russia’ and the Kremlin ­ all play an important role in gubernatorial elections, and it is only if they were to fall out among themselves that an incumbent might lose an election. This didn’t happen in October, although it could in the future. It is, however, clear that the system precludes the candidature of any opposition politician. Elections, in other words, don’t give the democratic movement any change of gaining power in the regions. It is feasible that candidates with known liberal views (nominated, say, by Mikhail Prokhorov’s ‘Civic Platform’) might in the future be able to register to stand for governor. But the very fact of registration will mean that they have passed the loyalty test and are acceptable to whoever is the top player of the local ‘big three’, either as potential winners or ­ and this is more likely ­ as token figures who are bound to lose. We should be wary about supporting such a candidate; we shouldn’t link the democratic movement’s reputation with politicians of this kind. Given the restricted range of candidates, in most cases the most acceptable option would be to vote for any candidate other than the official one (normally the incumbent governor).

However, although these events can’t strictly be regarded as elections, they do provide greater opportunities for political campaigning in the regions and create an important platform for mobilising voters and raising political awareness. So the democratic movement would want to see them continue, even in this watered-down form. We have to oppose any attempts to abolish them under the April 2013 law, which effectively reinstates the previous system of appointments.

A campaign for the democratisation of the law on gubernatorial elections, at both national and regional level, could provide an important focus for the democratic opposition and critically minded experts. In a regional context it is essential to reduce the ‘municipal filter’ element of the law and provide for the possibility of self-nomination for candidates.

In a forthcoming article, Grigorii Golosov will examine changes to the political party system

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