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Russia - An Evolving Parallel System


The legislative electoral system, which was first decreed by President Boris Yeltsin in September/October 1993, along with the presidential election system, were included within the first post-Soviet Russian constitution, which was narrowly ratified by the voters in December 1993. The Federal Assembly, the legislature of the Russian governmental system, is bicameral. The Duma (the popular assembly) is elected every four years. The Federation Council (the Upper House) consists of one executive and one legislative representative chosen from each of the 89 regions of Russia according to the laws of each region.

The Russian electoral system can be characterized as a classic example of a parallel electoral system, see Parallel Systems. Both party-list Proportional Representation (PR) and First Past the Post (FPTP) voting are used for choosing deputies in the Duma, but there is no adjustment of the party-list representatives to reflect disparities in the overall seat-vote share, as there is in Germany and New Zealand, see Germany: The Original Mixed Member Proportional System and New Zealand: A Westminster Democracy Switches to PR. The total number of deputies is 450, with exactly half selected by PR and half chosen in single-member plurality constituencies. The PR system operates in effect as one constituency, since the votes for political parties are tallied across the entire country. Nevertheless, parties compete regionally on closed lists, in accord with the June 1995 law adopted by the Federal Assembly. A nominee for a national party list of 12 members may also seek election from an FPTP single-member district in the region. Consequently, this can result in another seat for a political party, which wins on the PR ballot. Upon achieving the threshold of at least five percent of the PR votes, seats are distributed according to the largest remainder formula, see The Threshold. In theory, this is supposed to benefit smaller parties, but it does not appear to have had that effect in Russia.

In the 1995 parliamentary elections, only four political parties crossed the five percent threshold, which would make them eligible to be allocated seats from the PR lists. These parties garnered only 50.5 percent of the popular vote and received double the number of seats which would have been distributed had it been a strictly proportional system. Women of Russia, one of the 18 parties which failed to gain party list seats, was a slim 2.3 percent lower in votes than the Yobloco Party, which obtained, by contrast, 31 party list seats. Anomalies also occurred in the single-member constituencies, some of which were won with percentage votes as low as 20 percent when several of the 43 parties competed. Consequently the proportion of wasted votes was very high in the 1995 parliamentary elections.

The development of Russia's new electoral system was characterized by compromises among parliamentarians, the Russian president, and the legacy of past practice, see The Process of Choice. At first Boris Yeltsin decreed that one-third of the Duma would be elected by party-list PR, and the remainder elected from single-member districts as in the former Soviet Union. However, a number of pro-democracy groups in the previous parliament favoured List PR, seeing an advantage for their mostly Moscow-based organizations. After apparently being persuaded that well-organized communist parties would benefit from single-member districts, Yeltsin adopted an evenly-split plurality-PR system in October 1993. At the same time there was substantial agreement on the method of electing the President and the Federation Council, but in 1995 the election of Federation Council members was decentralised so that elections would be held according to each region's electoral laws.

The five percent threshold, intended to inhibit the proliferation of parties, has not worked in Russia and has led to gross disproportionality in the second Duma, elected in 1995. A number of groups have suggested the complete removal of the threshold, as in Iceland, or a smaller minimum percentage, such as the 0.67 percent threshold in the Netherlands, or the four percent in Sweden. Another change would be a move to a fully compensatory MMP system, as is used in Germany. The seats distributed to parties would then reflect the people's PR vote within each region, thus enhancing overall proportionality and strengthening the political party system as a whole.

Candidates for the presidency in 1991 were required to obtain 100,000 signatures, with only seven percent from the same region, for nomination. In 1995, this number was increased to one million signatures. The presidential system specifies that if no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first election round, a second is held between the two leading contenders, and the winner is required to win 50 percent or more votes for election. Four years is the term of office, and there is a two-term limitation. Presidential elections are held in different years from parliamentary elections. One problem with the two-round absolute majority presidential election procedure is that it discourages the formation of party coalitions, unlike one-round plurality elections in which parties tend to form in two blocs, see Electing a President - Two Round-Systems. Holding the presidential election at the same time as the Duma's would further reduce party-splintering and ensure greater accountability by the president and Duma.

Contributors: Wilma Rule, Nadezhda Shvedova

last modified March 14, 2006 07:54




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