Reprinted from Parliamentary Elections Bulletin, No. 4 (January 2000).
Like almost every discussion about Russia in the last ten years, the post-mortem on Russia's recent parliamentary election has polarized simplistically between "optimists" and "pessimists." Optimists argue that people voted, parties participated, the process was free and fair, and the outcome was a victory for "reform." Pessimists believe people did not care, parties did not matter, the process was rigged, and the outcome was a setback for "reform."
The optimists and the pessimists are both right and both wrong. In trying to fit everything into a simple black and white picture, both sides see only half of the more complex story of Russia's developing political system. Both the outcome and the process of the vote reveal positive and negative trends about Russia's protracted transition to democracy.
Clearly, Prime Minister Putin scored big victories in last Sunday's vote that could translate into positive developments for Russian reform. Unity, the pro-Putin electoral bloc, soundly defeated Fatherland, the electoral coalition headed by Putin's chief rival for the presidential election next year, Yevgeny Primakov. The Communists finished first, another Putin objective, as he and his election team want to face Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in next year's presidential vote. Putin must also be happy with the surprising showing of the Union of Right Forces; Russian liberalism has risen from the dead. The balance of power within the parliament as a whole has moved in a decisively pro-government direction, making the passage of tax reform, budget discipline, and Start II ratification more likely than ever before.
The bad news is that the Kremlin and Putin helped to produce these results by deploying the massive resources of the Russian federal state to support their parties and undermine their enemies. It has become fashionable in the West to cite Russia's weak state as the source of Russia's ills. In the realm of electoral politics, however, the Russian state looks more robust than ever, wielding its power in ways that exacted damage to Russia's fragile democratic institutions.
To be sure, the central feature of electoral democracy - the citizen's right to chose its leaders in a competitive election - is still alive and well in Russia. Given Russia's autocratic past, the successful completion of Russia's third parliamentary vote this decade must be recognized as a positive sign for democratic consolidation in Russia. At the same time, the supporting institutions that make elections free, fair, competitive, and meaningful - that is, the those features of a political system that distinguish electoral democracies from liberal democracies- emerged from this election both strengthened and scarred.
Take the party system. In several respects, this last election helped to strengthen Russia's "old" parties. Four parties that have competed in Russia's previous two Duma votes - the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Union of Right Forces (though by another name before), Yabloko, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia - all crossed the five percent threshold in last Sunday's vote. These four parties have well-defined platforms, loyal electorates, and party memberships. Strikingly, these four parties each garnered roughly the same percentage in 1999 that they won in the last parliamentary vote. The core of Russia's nascent multi-party system has consolidated.
Unity, however, unleashed a radical assault on party development. The state, not the people, created this electoral bloc which can boost no history, no platform, and no membership. Riding on Putin's coattails, Unity's only distinguishing campaign slogan was a pledge to eliminate proportional representation as a component of Russia's parliamentary election law, an act that would surely weaken Russian party development. If Russia's party system took two steps forward and one step backward in this vote, the independent media took one step forward and two steps backward. The state's two national channels brazenly supported Unity and trashed Fatherland, exposing some truths but also stretching some truths about Fatherland's leaders. Some independent media outlets, including the privately-owned national television network NTV, some independent regional television stations, and dozens of regional newspapers (including many owned by the Communist Party) did not tow the Kremlin line. On average, though, this election had more bias election coverage than the last parliamentary vote.
Regional autonomy also suffered a setback in this campaign period. The Kremlin bribed, coerced, and threatened regional leaders into supporting Unity. Some resisted, but most relented. Those regional leaders that did defy the Kremlin were not always serving the interest of liberal democracy. In fact, some of these anti-Kremlin regional bosses (as well as some pro-Kremlin regional leaders) undertook the most egregious violation of the democratic process by preventing some candidates from participating in the election.
Russians value their right to vote. Sixty percent turned out last Sunday. The vast majority of voters also shunned extreme nationalists and communists and placed their hopes for the future with more mainstream options. At the same time, the might of the Russian state also showed that it can create virtual parties, manipulate voters, coerce oppositions forces, and even prevent candidates from participating in the election process. In this latest contest between Russia's quasi-authoritarian state and quasi-democratic society, score two points for the state, and one point for the people.