Russia's Duma Elections: Why They Should Matter to the United States

Article excerpt

Conclusions

* Russia's legislative elections, scheduled for 17 December, have only limited legal significance, because most power is concentrated in the presidency. However, the elections will be viewed in Moscow as an indicator of the popular mood and will serve as a surrogate presidential primary.

* All indications are that the parliamentary election will not represent a fair sounding of the electorate. Virtually all participants in the election process will use the levers they control to manipulate the outcome: from buying signatures, to obstructing competitors' access to the media, to tampering with the vote count after the election.

* Government attempts to influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections probably will temper, but not neutralize, the anti-Government and anti-Yeltsin sentiment of the electorate. However, it is still too early to assess the likelihood of the Communist/nationalist sweep predicted by reformists like Yegor Gaydar.

* If hardliners do particularly well in the December elections and use their enhanced position in the new Duma to publicly challenge Boris Yeltsin, this could set the stage for another legislative/executive crisis.

Significance of the Legislative Elections

The two-year terms of both the lower houses (State Duma) and upper house (Federation Council) are due to expire in December. However, the only election currently scheduled is for the State Duma. The chances are remote that elections to a new Federation Council will be on the ballot this December, primarily because Yeltsin fiercely opposes an upper house directly elected by the people and has vetoed legislation mandating upper house elections.

The Duma elections have limited significance from a legal standpoint. The bicameral legislature--thanks to the Constitution drafted by the executive branch and adopted through a referendum in 1993--has little legal authority. In fact, over the past two years, the executive branch has ruled with very little direct interference from parliament. When the legislature adopts measures distasteful to the executive, Yeltsin generally vetoes the legislation and issues a presidential decree on the issue. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the legislature can do little to effect direct changes in policy.

The December elections, however, have symbolic significance that goes well beyond the parliament's ability to directly affect policy.

* First, Duma elections--in particular the party list vote, which will determine the makeup of half of the Duma's 450 deputies--will be seen by the Moscow political elite as a rough measure of which political forces enjoy the most popular support. In that sense, the Duma elections are a test of the legitimacy of the Yeltsin regime. The pattern of populist support revealed through the elections will also play a role in the formation of future political alliances.

* Second, because several of the parties vying in the legislative election are associated with presidential contenders, the elections will function as a kind of presidential primary, shaping perceptions within the Moscow political elite and Kremlin insiders as to the probable outcome of the June presidential elections.

* Third, if one group or coalition manages to sweep the elections and gain an overwhelming majority, it would be in a position to override a presidential veto or initiate impeachment proceedings--moves that could pave the way for a replay of the executive-legislative conflict that ended in Yeltsin's attack on the old parliament in the fall of 1993.

Weakness of Democracy

Although the mere holding of elections is a positive step towards the development of democratic practices, the election process itself has highlighted the fragility of democracy in Russia. It has also demonstrated how deeply ingrained are the habits of bureaucratic politics and authoritarian thinking inherited from the Soviet era. …