Limited Choices: Russian Opposition Parties and the 2007 Duma Election

Article excerpt

Abstract: Despite new incentives brought about by the 2005 electoral reforms in Russia, opposition parties failed to strategically adapt before the 2007 Duma election. This failure is connected to ideological and organizational impediments within the parties and to the hegemonic role of the Russian presidency and its client parties in the Russian party system.

Keywords: cartel party, client parties, Duma, electoral rules, opposition parties, United Russia

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The December 2007 Russian Duma election, which Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party (YeR) won in an overwhelming fashion, did not use the same electoral rules that had structured parliamentary elections from 1993 until 2003. (1) Before 2005, when the change was implemented, the 450-member Duma was selected through a combined electoral system in which half the seats were filled via a party list and half were drawn from single-member districts (SMDs) in Russia's eighty-nine regions. This system produced party ballots with frequently fluctuating numbers of parties, and SMD ballots with large numbers of independents. In an effort to expedite the party consolidation process, the 2005 law abolished SMD seats and extended the party lists to encompass all 450 seats. In addition, the vote threshold required for representation was increased from 5 percent to 7 percent--one of the highest thresholds in the world (rivaled by the 7 percent required for the Polish Sejm and exceeded by the 10 percent required for the Turkish Grand National Assembly). To ensure the maintenance of "partyness," the law also stipulated that parliament members could not change their party affiliation after getting elected and that the candidates themselves must undergo a two-stage evaluation process by the Central Election Commission. Finally, the law prohibited the formation of party blocs, requiring each party to possess official registration, dovetailing with the 2001 law, On Political Parties, that raised the number of members and regional branches required for registration. (2) All of these changes obviously pose a strategic problem for Russia's political parties: they must learn to adapt to the new rules to remain relevant as representational organizations. Most of all, the new electoral formula was a challenge to the opposition parties that saw their support decline in the 2003 Duma election--namely, the democratic parties Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). (3) In this article, I explore how these parties have responded to the electoral changes and what factors have influenced these strategies. The first part of this article examines Yabloko and the SPS, both of which failed to individually pass the 5 percent threshold in the 2003 election and were unable to combine into a single party for the 2007 election as a means of overcoming the daunting 7 percent threshold. I also look into the decline of the KPRF, which suffered a major reversal of support in the 2003 election that continued into the 2007 election. Finally, because the setbacks for these parties have not occurred in a vacuum, the last part of this article deals with the nature of the system itself and how it has limited opposition parties' choices. This includes a discussion of the hegemonic influence of the Putin regime (and, by extension, YeR), its use of administrative resource, and the role of client parties (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia [LDPR] and Just Russia) in shaping party system outcomes. Even in the absence of the opposition parties' strategic failures (of which there are many), the election rules militate against opposition party success.

Theoretical Background

Before moving on to the main discussion of the opposition parties and their electoral challenges, it would be prudent to first outline some basic theoretical considerations of Russian party system analysis. …