Russia's 1999 Parliamentary Elections: Party Consolidation and Fragmentation
Mcfaul, Michael, Demokratizatsiya
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. Despite attempts by the Kremlin and its parliamentary allies to weaken proportional representation (PR), the 1999 electoral law retains the balance between PR seats and single-mandate seats outlined in the 1993 presidential decree on Duma elections and the 1995 law on Duma elections.(1) Fifty percent or 225 of the seats in the Duma were allocated according to PR and the other 50 percent of the seats were allocated according to single-mandate districts. As in 1993 and 1995, parties had to obtain a minimum of 5 percent to win seats on the party list. Such continuity over time regarding the rules of the game helps to stabilize expectations, a positive sign for institutional consolidation.(2) The basic territorial borders of the electoral districts were also preserved.
A third positive sign for democratic consolidation was the turnout in this election. In a vote that political pundits declared would have no influence on policy or Russia's future more generally, 60 percent of eligible voters nonetheless showed up at the polls on a cold December day. This percentage is almost twice the level of a typical parliamentary election in the United States when a presidential election is not occurring simultaneously.
In comparative perspective, a fourth sign of stability and consolidation emerging from this election was that the choices offered to voters had narrowed considerably. After an explosion of party proliferation in 1995, when forty-three parties appeared on the ballot, the 1999 parliamentary ballot contained only twenty-six parties. The even more dramatic contrast with 1995, however, was the strategic behavior of the Russian voter in 1999. Before the vote, public opinion polls showed that voters who supported small, unsuccessful parties in the last election did not want to waste their votes this time around. Fewer did. In 1995, 50 percent of votes on the party list ballot went to parties that did not cross the 5 percent threshold. In 1999, the percentage of votes casts for "none of the above" or parties that did not reach the 5 percent threshold was only 18.6 percent. Beyond the six parties that did cross the threshold, only two electoral blocs garnered more than 2 percent of the vote--Women of Russia (2.0 percent) and Communists, Workers of Russia for the Soviet Union (2.2 percent). Only two more parties garnered more than 1 percent of the vote--Party of Pensioners (1.95 percent) and Our Home Is Russia (1.19 percent).
In another positive development, extremist, anti-system parties have either become marginalized or changed their ways. Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia once looked like a Nazi facsimile. The Zhirinovsky bloc that won nearly 6 percent of the vote in the December 1999 elections operates primarily a commercial operation, selling its votes to the highest bidder. More radical nationalist groups that competed in the election performed miserably. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation garnered the highest percentage again on the party list vote, but its transformation in the last several years has made it no longer a threat to the status quo. Today's party doesn't want to overthrow capitalism; it aspires to reform the market.(3) Radicals who still reject capitalism and democracy joined splinter communist organizations, all of which failed to win seats in the new Duma.
More generally, all of Russia's parties appeared to gravitate toward the center in this election. Cleavage issues were much harder to identify. When one compares party platforms written for the 1995 parliamentary elections and those written as the December election was approaching, the growing convergence among party positions on virtually every major issue is striking.(4) In 1995, fundamental debates could be discerned regarding the nature of the economy, the war in Chechnya (the first war), or foreign policy. In the 1999 campaign, only the real specialist could identify different positions regarding these issues. To be sure, Yabloko eventually did adopt a unique position in opposition to the war in Chechnya (although Yavlinsky originally supported the Russian military response) and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) still advocates a greater role for the state in economy than the Union of Right Forces. Likewise, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the CPRF promote a much more ethnic-based version of nationalism than Yabloko or the Union of Right Forces. In comparison to 1995, however, the similarities between programs were much more striking than the differences.
Explanations for the convergence vary. On one hand, the positions reflect attitudinal trends in society. When over 70 percent of the population supported the war in Chechnya, no party dared to take an opposite position. Yabloko campaign managers believe that they suffered the electoral consequences of staking out a moral but unpopular position on the war. Even on the economy, polls show an increasing optimism about the future and a great satisfaction with the way the government is tackling economic issues. According to a November 1999 …
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Publication information: Article title: Russia's 1999 Parliamentary Elections: Party Consolidation and Fragmentation. Contributors: Mcfaul, Michael - Author. Journal title: Demokratizatsiya. Volume: 8. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2000. Page number: 5. © 1998 Heldref Publications. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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