In 2011, there were protests concerning alleged election fraud by United Russia – which is now in government. Whilst it is near impossible to suggest that in a country such as Russia (that has only recently had comparatively free and fair elections) is completely clean of fraud, the exit polls (and predictions by sociologists) showed a very small margin of error – let alone a sign that the election itself was rigged.
On Wednesday, it was announced that there would be an overhaul of the current system. Buried beneath the news of Depardieu’s defection, the new bill will change Russian elections from a proportional system to a combination of proportional and majoritarian systems. Did you hear of any protests?
There is a very clear comparison for this to show what will change, as Russia had this system up unti 2003 until the current administration changed it for more proportional elections. Back in 2003, United Russia won nearly half of seats available – even though it only got 38% and 24% in the proportional and majoritarian elections respectively. Whilst the system isn’t undemocratic in itself, this is perhaps a tactic of a ruling party that worries its days are numbered. Whether you agree with that or not, even most who agree with their policies would think such a move dishonest at the least.
The new system will also, somewhat ironically, lower the amount of complaints against electoral fraud whilst doing little about it compared to other recent bills concerning elections (that tended to have the opposite effect). This is because fraud, or accusing those of fraud, will only be worth it if your party wins that seat as results count only as wins/losses.
A funny concept too, is the fact that whilst many in the West have suggested that it was too hard to form a party in Russia, the New York Times now suggests that it was too easy – saying:
Mr. Putin, in a speech to the Russian Parliament last month, described the proposed change as a continuation of liberalization efforts that began last year with an easing of restrictions on creating political parties. Critics of that process say it is now too easy to form a party, effectively splintering the opposition like a shattered pane of glass.”
As I said before, Pussy Riot’s trial hinged on Church influence and Putin’s populist tendencies left him as if he were a paper tiger throughout the trial. Putin gains support from both the liberal and conservative electorate, and when he said that they shouldn’t be punished too harshly he was making an attempt to appease both sides. This, as the latest polls show, did not work.
Something Western media tends to overlook is the amount of reading between the lines in Russian government. Whilst in international relations Russian intentions are obvious, domestically it has become a different matter. When talking about America as ‘Comrade Wolf’, people were confused but it was in fact concerning a Russian fable. Wolf, Fox and Hare fell into a trap and cannot get out of the pit. After a little while they feel hungry. Wolf asks: Who shall we eat? Fox answers (looking awry at Hare): “Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat.
What doesn’t help too is the idea that Putin has consolidated all power, and ‘manages’ the democracy. This is simply not true, albeit specious. Putin not only has to appease the public (he is treading on ice when opinion polls go against him), but also the institutions (such as the Church) and other politicians (such as Medvedev).
After protests questioning the authenticity of the election in 2011, changes totalling roughly half a billion dollars to the Russian electoral process were put in place. A live webcam feed of all polling stations shown to as many as half a million independent observers was put in place; election fraudsters from Dagestan to Moscow were caught, but the West was shocked at how Putin still won. However, a look at the candidates may give better context.
So for the past few days we’ve been witnessing the largest demonstrations in Russia since the 90s, after accusations of electoral fraud being held in some states. What does this mean, and why is it happening? I’m also hoping to highlight some areas which us in the West may not understand and could find foreign which are relevant to the current rallies. Let’s start with the substantiated criticisms from both sides on democracy.
Amnesty International’s Friederike Behr was quoted in March, saying that “There is no real opposition ahead of the election. There is no real electoral campaign battle.” This is true, Russia does not have a strong enough opposition to the incumbent party. In a flourishing democracy, there must be ‘contestation for consensus’. In Russia minority interests are overlooked in favour of what Mill would call “a tyranny of the majority.” A stronger opposition would also work to hold the government to account and establish greater legitimacy. In recent years, the administration has become more complacent which is harmful to their ambition. In short, their initial popularity will become their undoing.
Putin’s issue is that foreigners are giving donations to Russian political parties, which he believes damages the political process although the prevalence of this is unknown.
Mikhail Gorbachev called for re-runs of the elections – the Telegraph attributed this to the suspiciously high pro-incumbent ratings in both Chechnya and a Moscow psychiatric hospital.
Lastly, http://time2know.co.uk/ is a good source from the influential Russian opposition blogger Alexei Navalny. Lots of links from Russian newspapers and TV channels are shown which give opinions on the elections. Note: the site is actually in English, presumably because everyone speaks that anyway.
What do these protests mean? It might be too early to tell, but from recent examples could go down several routes.
The election will be re-run. Independent foreign polls show that the leading party would maintain dominance, but could probably lose ground to the Communist party. However, this would establish greater legitimacy for the current government.
The allegations of fraudulent elections will create such a backlash that the Communist party becomes the leading party – Putin and Medvedev would then become the opposition. However, this seems unlikely as there would have to be a swing of over 30%. More likely in this scenario of a backlash is that Putin’s party would join a coalition with either the Liberal Democratic Party or A Just Russia Party – either of which would increase the government’s vote by approximately 30%.
The government will instigate an independent commission on the vote. Those found guilty will receive punitive sentences. This last one is probably the most likely. Putin has expressed support for this approach over the last few days, and it would make him appear tough and pro-democratic.
Will the movement turn into a mass rally, or even a ‘Civil War’ as Fox News has reportedly said. In my mind, this will be temporary. Whatever happens, will happen over the next few months and the protests won’t have enough time to develop into a movement for change like the Occupy Wall Street. There is a tactical lack of violence by the government. We’ve seen in the past year a worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring. In both instances, the situation was exacerbated by police or army brutality. As per usual, the government is forming a pragmatic approach – being conciliatory and compromising.
Putin defends the Russian right to protest – http://youtu.be/qE4ACwhDPVo