Changing Russia's Electoral System: Assessing Alternative Forms of Representation and Elections

Article excerpt

Considerable controversy surrounds Russia's current arrangements for electing deputies to its lower parliamentary chamber, the State Duma. The method, which provides for electing: one half of 450 seats by party list proportional representation (PR) and the other half in single-mandate constituencies, is similar to that by which Germany elects its Bundestag. However, the two systems are different in several important respects. First, parties in Germany necessarily campaign on regional (Lander) lists, whereas those in Russia need only submit a single national list. Thus, unlike Germany's decentralized party system, Russian parties are largely creatures of Moscow's political establishment, with tenuous ties to regional and local party organizations. Second, whereas Germany links single-mandate and PR elections by making provision for an overall proportionality of representation, the allocation of PR seats in Russia is divorced from the results of the single-mandate contests. A party wins seats under PR in Russia only if its vote exceeds 5 percent, regardless of the outcomes in the single-mandate contests, thereby increasing the separation between these two halves of the Duma. Third, parliamentary elections in Russia occur in the context of a presidency whose constitutional powers overshadow parliament's. Moreover, because Russia's parliamentary elections occur a mere six months prior to its presidential contest, those elections assume much of the flavor of a primary in which presidential aspirants seek to establish themselves at the head of some party list while positioning themselves for the forthcoming contest.

These features of Russia's electoral system and its deviations from the German model doubtlessly contributed to the confusing array of parties (forty-three) that confronted voters in 1995, and to the fact that the total vote share of the four parties that passed the 5 percent threshold to secure PR seats barely reached 50 percent (and did not reach 50 percent if one counts invalid and blank ballots). However, even though we can debate the motives of those who designed Russia's electoral system, we can be fairly certain that such structural issues are not the primary concern either of the advocates of different electoral arrangements today(1) or of those who would oppose any change. More important is that the present system seems to have benefited the ultranationalist Zhirinovsky in 1993 and Yeltsin's opponents, most notably the Communist Party, in 1995.

Of course, even if existing procedures survive to the next scheduled round of elections in December 1999, someone, sometime later, will have an incentive to seek change. Manipulating electoral systems under the guise of reform to the advantage of those in power is a time-honored democratic tradition. The questions we address here, then, are, What are the most feasible alternatives to current arrangements, and what are the likely consequences of any specific change? What increased or decreased share of seats are communists, nationalists, and liberals likely to experience if Russia were, for example, to elect all of its Duma deputies using single-mandate constituencies, national PR, or some variant of regional PR?

As to the alternatives, the world offers a vast menu of possibilities. We examine only the simplest--several variants of plurality rule and alternative forms of proportional representation.(2) Although imagining alternatives is easy, identifying a methodology for assessing their impact is more difficult. First, we must decide if we are interested in long- or short-term consequences. Long-term consequences, of course, are important because they include the coherence of Russia's party system, which in turn critically influences the functioning of its federal system,(3) not to mention the general performance and stability of its democratic institutions.(4) To concern ourselves with those consequences seems premature, however. Although we might like to suggest electoral systems better suited to Russia's long-term needs, in Russia, decisions in politics, like decisions in economics, are likely to be made on the basis of two- or three-month planning horizons. …