Russia's 1999 Parliamentary Elections: Party Consolidation and Fragmentation

Article excerpt

Author's note: In the wake of Yeltsin's unexpected resignation on 31 December 1999 and the apparent inevitability of Putin's electoral victory in the March 2000 presidential election, the 1999 December parliamentary elections already seem like ancient history. For the analyst of Russian politics, however, Russia's Duma vote offers a new wealth of data that will help reveal important trends in electoral behavior, party development, and institutional consolidation. In this article, written just days after the vote, I cannot pretend to offer definitive conclusions about the election's consequences for any of these important issues. My aim is rather to suggest some tentative hypotheses that may help to guide future discussion and research.

The 1999 Duma in Comparative Context: Elections as Normal Events

When evaluating Russia's progress in institutionalizing elections, the comparative set always drives the result of the analysis: When compared to the United States, France, or Poland, Russia's recent parliamentary vote does not look like a major achievement. In contrast to the 1993 and 1995 parliamentary elections, the Kremlin played an active and aggressive role in influencing the outcome of the 1999 vote. Through the control of television channels 1 (ORT) and 2 (RTR), the Kremlin and its allies viciously attacked their main opponent in the election, Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), and tirelessly promoted the government's electoral bloc, Unity. To be sure, media outlets supportive of Fatherland-All Russia, including TV Tsentr, the television network controlled by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and NTV, the independent television network owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, responded to these attacks. Media coverage was biased but not monolithic. Add to this equation the hundreds of independent newspapers and other publications, many owned by the Communist Party, and you get a fairly diverse range of outlets for campaign coverage. Nonetheless, that the government-owned media adopted a partisan position is not a good sign for democracy. Without question, pockets of falsification and/or coercion of voters also occurred. How else can one explain the 89 percent support for Fatherland-All Russia in Ingushetiya! Even with falsification, however, pluralism was present, with some important republics backing Fatherland-All Russia and others demonstrating extraordinary support for Unity. Finally, the state proved ineffective in controlling campaign spending.

When this election is compared to other "elections" in Russian history, however, these violations do not seem as great. In a country burdened by hundreds of years of dictatorship, it is remarkable that Russia held its third consecutive election for the State Duma in the last decade. No other democratically elected legislative body in Russian history has lasted this long. All major political actors now believe that elections are the only legitimate means for assuming power in Russia. Political leaders ranging from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to liberal Boris Nemtsov have affirmed their belief in the electoral process. These political actors are demonstrating their commitment to democracy with more than words: they are paying campaign consultants rather than forming militias. Despite real dissatisfaction with the performance of democracy in their country, the vast majority of Russian citizens still believe that elections are the only legitimate means for assuming political power. In a ROMIR poll conducted in June and July 1999, 66 percent of all respondents believed that it is impermissible to ban meetings and demonstrations and 62 percent believed that it is impermissible to cancel elections.

The December vote was also held on time and under law--a law ratified in a democratic process by elected officials. The law governing the 1999 election was basically the same as the law that shaped the first post-Communist Duma election in 1993 and the second vote in 1995. …