Candidate Strategies and Electoral Competition in the Russian Federation: Democracy without Foundation

By O'Dwyer, Conor | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Candidate Strategies and Electoral Competition in the Russian Federation: Democracy without Foundation


O'Dwyer, Conor, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Regina Smyth. Candidate Strategies and Electoral Competition in the Russian Federation: Democracy without Foundation. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 247 pp. Bibliography. Index $80, cloth.

As Vladimir Putin's consolidation of power erodes what remains of Russia's democracy, the pressing question for political scientists and observers of this region is what went wrong? Russia's democratic experiment, though chaotic and imperfect from the beginning, was hardly predestined to failure. Regina Smyth adds a surprising candidate to the usual culprits blamed for democracy's decline-elections themselves. Smyth argues that free elections to Russia's parliament failed to incorporate political elites into the regime, failed to generate accountability between voters and government, and ultimately failed to generate political party organizations capable of defending democracy from an overreaching president. This is an interesting and important argument, especially given a history of scholarship-from Samuel Huntington to, more recently, Staffan Lindbergarguing that elections (even flawed ones) are instruments of democratic deepening. Yet, through a methodologically rigorous analysis of a fundamental element of the elections process, the behaviour of individual candidates, Smyth constructs a meticulous and persuasive argument that Russia's chaotic elections played a key role in its regress from democratic government.

To use Smyth's terminology, Russia's elections failed to generate "electoral infrastructure." They did not succeed in producing accurate information about either candidates or voters' wishes, to induce co-ordination among candidates, or to create cooperation within party organizations. Instead, elections presented voters with too many candidates, too many of whom ran as independents, and all of whom presented too many disparate campaign messages. In this anarchic milieu, party labels had little meaning for voters or candidates. The reasons for this outcome were both institutional and contextual. The chief institutional culprit was Russia's mixed electoral system, which combined both proportional representation and single-member districts. This allowed candidates to run in either type of contest or simultaneously in both. The post-Soviet context mattered too: whereas in established democracies political parties control campaign resources, in Russia control was split between parties, regional governors, businesses, and popular individuals, enabling candidates, even partisan ones, to emphasize personal and issue appeals over party programs.

Smyth's analysis draws on a survey of all parliamentary candidates running (both successfully and unsuccessfully) in 1995 and 1999 from four Russian regions.

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