(A slightly different version of this post was published on Russia Profile)
Political reforms introduced by then-President Putin in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, in September 2004, have made Russia’s democratic institutions more dependent on the Kremlin, more hospitable to the incumbency, and, ultimately, less competitive. Unfortunately, Constitutional amendments and changes to the electoral law proposed by President Medvedev in his first state-of-the-nation address will do little to challenge this status quo.
Without any pretense of the exhaustive analysis of Medvedev's proposals, I'd like to discuss a few controversial provisions.
Medvedev’s initiative to extend the presidential term to six years and the Duma deputy terms to five years appears to be a step in the wrong direction. Extending elected officials’ terms without imposing term limits means fewer elections. Fewer elections mean less political competition. It’s that simple.
As of today, the Russian electorate is not overwhelmed with election campaigns, which, when taking place, are short and non-eventful, if not outright boring. If nothing else, more frequent elections in Russia could help awaken the disengaged and apathetic electorate.
At first glance, the suggestion to allocate one or two “fixed” Duma seats to political parties which gained 5 to 7 percent of the popular vote (just below of the current 7-percent threshold) looks quite democratic. But here is the issue. In the past Duma election, in December 2007, two political parties currently represented in the Duma, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and Just Russia (JR) collected 8.1 and 7.7 percent of the popular vote and were subsequently allocated 40 and 38 Duma seats, respectively. Should Medvedev’s proposal be implemented, a political party may receive only a slightly smaller percentage of the vote than, say, JR, and yet be awarded with hardly a 1/20 fraction of JR’s Duma seats. Won’t this create an impression that some political parties (and voters supporting them) are “less equal” than others?
If President Medvedev really wants to increase party representation in the Duma, as he claims, then the most logical solution would be to reduce the electoral threshold to 5 or even 3 percent. Yet, without giving any explanations, Medvedev called such a measure “not necessary.”
The Russian electoral law openly favors incumbent (i.e. already represented in the Duma) political parties. Medvedev’s proposals fail to address this bias. Take his suggestion to get rid of using monetary bonds to register for elections. It is not that this registration will be abolished at all. No, instead of posting monetary bonds (which is at least easy if the party has money) non-incumbent parties will now have to collect supporting signatures (two million in case of Duma elections), which is cumbersome, error-prone, and open to bureaucratic harassment. Moreover, everyone in Russia knows that these signatures are being bought – literally bought by professional collectors who pay cash in exchange for signatures, low-income citizens like pensioners and college students being usual "donors."
The real question to ask is why a political party in good standing has to additionally register for elections in the first place? To level the playing ground in terms of elections, a simple process could be implemented: in the year preceding Duma election, all Russian political parties go through a process of re-registration and then proceed to the election without any further preconditions.
Medvedev's proposal to introduce mandatory term limits for the leadership of political parties seems to be simply off mark. There are no term limits for Duma deputies, senators, governors, ministers, and heads of state corporations. Why should then the state regulate political parties, which in essense are public entities?
It is not a secret that the balance of power in Russia is heavily shifted towards the executive branch of government. It is therefore a good idea to give the Duma some “controlling functions” (in Medvedev’s words) over the Cabinet. A law proposed by the President would mandate annual Cabinet reports to the Duma.
Unfortunately, Medvedev didn’t make clear what these “controlling functions” should be and how then these annual reports should be different from the current, completely toothless, “government hours.” The new law would only be effective if it postulated that every annual report is to be followed by the Duma vote of confidence (with a simple majority needed to force the Cabinet to resign). Otherwise, annual government reports will rapidly morph in Prime Minister Putin’s own state-of-the-nation addresses.