There is every reason to call the March 11 regional elections in Russia a dry rehearsal for the 2007 Duma campaign.
First, this "elect-a-thon" covers thirteen regions, plus St. Petersburg, a swath of the country with about 33 million on it — almost a quarter of Russia’s population. Second, there are no grand electoral events scheduled between March 11 and December 2, the Duma Election Day. Third, the scale of the March 11 elections in itself is impressive: 92 regional chapters of fifteen political parties will compete in the party list vote; 1,000 additional candidates are running in single-mandate districts. Fourth, some rules that apply to the Duma election will be tested on March 11. For example, in three regions (Republic of Dagestan, Moscow District, and St. Petersburg), the election will be carried out "Duma-style", i.e. exclusively by party list vote.
Not surprisingly, the event drew close media attention inside and outside the country. The New York Times even featured, on February 15, an article about the elections, which is a peculiar mix of sheer ideological bias with ignorance regarding Russia’s political landscape. The most troubling aspect of this piece is its not-so-subtle attempt to question the very ability of the Russian electoral system to create legitimate parliaments.
One of the expressed concerns was that in the future elections, "voters’ choices will be severely limited." Really? On average, seven political parties will be vying for voters’ attention in each of the fourteen regions. This is atop the five (on average) individual candidates competing in each single-mandate district. True, making "choices" between parties and candidates, many without clearly stated positions, is not easy. Still, when going to the polls, ordinary Russians will certainly have more options than, say, their New York City counterparts.
A lot of noise has been made about the assertion — promoted by two liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) — that in the pre-election campaign, the "authorities" have put "pressure on opposition." This grievance is based primarily on the fact that several regional election commissions have refused to register party lists submitted by Yabloko and SPS. The leadership of both parties predictably called these decisions "politically motivated."
The reality simply does not support this allegation. Leading the pack in terms of number of rejections is the Democratic Party of Russia. Few would dare call this structure oppositional. Quite to the contrary, by resisting Mikhail Kasyanov’s attempts to "abduct" the party — and use it as a springboard for the future presidential run — the Democrats have certainly won some sympathy with the Kremlin. Nonetheless, of the eleven party lists submitted by the Democrats, eight have been refused registration.
Or take the Socialist United and the Agrarian parties, whose lists were rejected in five of six and six of eight regions, respectively. Both parties are completely loyal to the Kremlin; the potential merger of the Agrarians with the pro-presidential United Russia party has been rumored for months.
Yabloko has been denied registration in five cases out of nine, and SPS in four out of fourteen. SPS had been initially denied registration in one more region, but this decision was later reversed by the Central Election Commission (CEC).
It is a gross exaggeration to call the slew of registration rejections a "politically motivated" assault on the opposition. Rather, it is a consequence of the pressure that the newly-amended law on political parties has put on smaller players.
The current electoral law is highly favorable to the incumbents, i.e. political parties already represented in the Duma. By law, these parties are exempt from any pre-conditions when it comes to registering party lists. The non-Duma parties, however, have a preliminary hurdle to clear, and two equally unappealing options of how to do so. They can post a bond, which in St. Petersburg, for example, can reach a staggering 90 million rubles (about $3.5 million) or, alternatively, submit a signature list, a cumbersome process whereby thousands of supportive signatures must be collected within limited time and a razor-thin margin of errors.
Not surprisingly, when facing races in fourteen regions at once, cash-strapped small parties would opt for signature lists, but then fall into trap of "invalid" entries. That is why much better funded SPS was able to minimize its losses by posting bonds in the majority of the regions. In contrast, Yabloko could not come up with 90 million rubles in St. Petersburg; it instead collected signatures and was disqualified because the margin of errors exceeded (by only a half percent!) 10 percent, which was allowed by the law.
Mindful of the struggle of small political parties, the CEC Chairman, Alexander Veshnyakov, proposed getting rid of the election registration entirely. Veshnyakov argued that the recently established elaborate process of registering political parties has made any follow-up registration obsolete. Veshnyakov conceded, however, that the chances that the current Duma would agree with his proposal were nil.
The March 11 regional campaigns will help answer a number of key questions pertinent to the up-coming Duma election. For example, will United Russia form a stable majority, albeit, obviously, non-constitutional? Will Just Russia be able to create a viable "check" on United Russia, or is this not going to happen until the next electoral cycle, if at all? Will the "liberals" overcome the seven-percent threshold and win seats in the Duma? Although some claim they know the answers today, let’s still wait until after March 11.