Reprinted from Parliamentary Elections Bulletin, No. 3, December 1999

Like almost every discussion about Russia in the last ten years (and the Soviet Union for the last seven decades before), the debate about Russia's upcoming parliamentary election is polarized simplistically between "optimists" and "pessimists." Optimists believe that the election is a "good thing." People are voting, parties are participating, and everyone is happy. Pessimists believe that the election is a "bad thing." People do not care, parties don't matter, and everyone is sad.
In fact, both sides are both right and both wrong. In trying to fit everything into a simple black and white picture, both sides see only the half of the more complex story of Russia's developing political system. Russia's polity has a poor institutional mix of both a PR (proportional representation) electoral system for selecting its parliament that cohabitates with a powerful presidency. In parliamentary democracies, proportional representation produces multi-party systems. In contrast, presidential systems usually produce two-party systems. The results of having PR and a presidential system are hybrid party systems as Russia's parliamentary vote has clearly demonstrated.


The vote on Sunday will end two very different and almost unrelated electoral campaigns at the national level (and a third, the single-mandate elections, at the regional level not discussed here). One vote is a contest between political parties vying for seats in the Duma through the party list system. This campaign is dominated by well-known parties that have participated in previous elections. The second vote also appears to be a battle for Duma seats. In fact, however, this second national contest has nothing to do with the Duma and everything to do with the presidential election next year. The two main players in this campaign - Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) and Unity (Medved) - were formed first and foremost to influence next year's election, not Sunday's vote.


When one analyzes these two contests separately, two very different stories unfold. The first contest is a typical, boring parliamentary campaign that looks like a PR vote in any European parliamentary democracy. The four main participants - the Communist Party of Russia, Yabloko, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and the Union of Right Forces share many common attributes. First, all participated in previous Duma votes. They are not newcomers to the parliamentary electoral process. Second, all four parties have rather well defined political orientations, loyal electorates, and notable leaders. In focus groups and opinion polls, voters demonstrate that they know these parties well. Third, during this year's campaign, these parties are not really competing with each other. Rather, they have been busy trying to maintain their own electorates, and have not invested much campaign time in seeking new supporters. Consequently, with the possible exception of Yabloko and Union of Right Forces, they almost never engage each other directly. There is little mud slinging between the CPRF and the Union of Right Forces, or between Zhirinovsky and Yavlinsky.


Fourth, all are likely to win roughly the same percentage in this election that they won in December 1995. The CPRF won 22% in 1995; they are poised to win this same amount or a little more on Sunday. Yabloko may win exactly the same percentage as in 1995. The Union of Rights Forces may creep a little ahead of its 1995 showing, though the addition of 1-2 percentage points will mean this difference between life and death in a system with a five percent threshold. Zhirinovsky's LDPR looks to suffer a sharp decline and may win only half of the 11% it captured in 1995. Yet, all four are going to be within plus of minus five percentage points of what they won in 1995. Given all that has happened in Russia over the last fours years - the August 1998 financial crash, rotating prime ministers, and the wars in Kosovo and Chechnya - these numbers represent incredible stability on par with other European PR parliamentary democracies.
It is also striking to note that no new ideological-based party has managed to challenge these four established parties for their political niches. New nationalist, communist, and liberal parties have formed; some even have long histories and famous leaders. But none are poised to one percent, let along five percent.


Fifth, all four of these parties have enjoyed roughly the same amount of public support throughout the entire campaign period, suggesting that the campaign process has only marginally influenced their electoral potential. Most election experts agree that the Union of Right Forces has run a most professional, well-financed, and well-managed campaign, making it likely that they will cross the five- percent threshold. Yet, despite this commendable campaign performance, the Union of Right Forces is likely to win only 1-1.5% more than Democratic Choice of Russia captured last year in what many agreed was a poor campaign. Many electoral experts have observed that Yabloko has conducted an ineffective campaign. Yet, despite this allegedly weak campaign performance, Yabloko is still likely to garner the same percentage as they did in the last election.
An additional shared feature of all these parties is that they will take their parliamentary roles very seriously should they cross the five- percent threshold. These parties understand that parliamentary participation is an important component of party development.


And they should take their parliamentary jobs seriously, because a final shared attribute of these established parties is that none of them have a leader who is a serious contender in next year's presidential race.
The contrast between these parliamentary parties and the presidential coalitions also in this race could not be starker. First, neither Fatherland nor Unity participated in the last election. They are both unlikely to participate in the next parliamentary election. The 200 race is the focus of attention. Luzhkov created Fatherland to promote his presidential aspirations. Primakov joined Fatherland-All Russia as a way to further his presidential prospects. On behalf of their current presidential hopeful, Vladimir Putting, the Kremlin created Unity to weaken Luzhkov and Primakov as presidential candidates. Neither coalition is very concerned with party development.


Second, both Fatherland and Unity have very poorly defined identities within the electorate. Opinion polls and focus groups commissioned by the author reveal that voters still do not understand what either coalition stands for or represents.
Third, in contrast to the other four established parties, these new coalitions have engaged in a fierce, negative campaign against each other. Unity leaders and Putting have avoided direct attacks against OVR, leaving the real dirty work to ORT and RTR. Through their own media outlets, Fatherland leaders have responded directly to these attacks. This action-reaction cycle witnessed almost every day stands in sharp contrast to the non-confrontational and barely noticeable campaigns being waged by the other parties mentioned above.


Fourth, again in contrast to stable levels of support expressed throughout the fall for the four parliamentary parties, popular support for these presidential coalitions has fluctuated considerably in the last four months. Fatherland has taken a nosedive while Unity has enjoyed a radical climb in the polls. Fifth, neither Fatherland nor Unity is likely to assume major roles in the next Duma. Both coalitions could collapse after the presidential vote. Finally, if the four parliamentary parties do not have serious presidential contenders within their ranks, both of these presidential coalitions could have boasted one or two candidates before the parliamentary campaign began-Primakov and Luzhkov from OVR and Putin (Unity's surrogate leader) and Shoigu from Unity. After this parliamentary campaign, however, both Primakov and Luzhkov may be through as serious presidential contenders. This last observation suggests that parliamentary parties best contest parliamentary races and non-party presidential coalitions best cintest presidential races in Russia's current hybrid political system.


Eventually, Russia must either liquidate the presidency and develop a multi-party parliamentary or liquidate proportional representation in the Duma and have a two-party presidential system. Until these institutional changes, however, expect more two-headed parliamentary elections in the future.