Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russians and Their Party System

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russians and Their Party System

Article excerpt

Abstract: There are different views about the place of political parties in postcommunist Russian politics. However, levels of trust and partisan identification are low, although much depends on the wording of the question and the timing of the survey. Levels of party membership are also low, at approximately 1 percent of the adult population in the author's 2005 survey. Focus groups conducted immediately after the December 2003 and March 2004 elections confirm the gulf that exists between ordinary Russians and the political parties, and the negligible presence of political parties in much of the country. The heavy influence of the regime itself on Russian party politics has made them a part of Putin's "managed democracy." As long as this is the case, authentic citizen politics is unlikely to develop.

Key words: disengagement, parties, Russia

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"No bourgeois, no democracy," observed Barrington Moore. He might just as well have said "no parties, no democracy." No other mechanism has yet been found for aggregating the preferences of citizens, expressing them in the form of a government program, and providing a team to carry them out. More generally, parties help to engage citizens in the political process on a continuing basis. They provide a form of political education, often including the daily press, and sometimes they provide a wider network of social activities, including youth movements, sporting societies, and holiday arrangements. In the largest sense of all, they provide for the accountability of government by allowing voters to pass judgement on the performance of an outgoing team and, when they think it appropriate, to "throw the rascals out." (1)

There has been little consensus about the extent to which Russian parties fulfill these various requirements. American scholars usually have been minimalists, reflecting the nature of party politics in their own country--parties have identifiers rather than members, they are active during elections but not between them, and they raise money to buy advertising rather than rely on activists to appeal over the front doorstep. Europeans more often take a view that reflects their own experience of the mass party, a world of which the Russian Social Democrats (later the Bolsheviks and later still the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) were themselves a part before World War I. Both would agree, however, that parties are a central element in the forms of linkage that connect citizens and government, and that the extent to which a system of this kind has been formed in Russia is central to an evaluation of its postcommunist politics. Have Russians, a decade or more after the demise of the Soviet Union, overcome their antipathy to "the party" and become citizens rather than subjects? Or do they have what has been described as a floating party system, characterized by high levels of turnover, or a client party system, dominated by the Kremlin itself? (2)

In this article, I first consider some of the aggregate evidence that relates to these questions, drawing on a national representative survey conducted in the first half of 2005. Second, I draw on a series of focus group discussions that took place immediately after the December 2003 Duma and March 2004 presidential elections, which were intended to move beyond tick-box responses to the complexity of attitudes that relate voters and nonvoters to the parties and candidates that appeal for their support (further details are provided in the appendix). I look first at the nature of the support that Russians give--or fail to give--to their political parties, using survey evidence. Then, I turn to electors themselves. Survey evidence can tell us if individual perceptions are representative of a wider universe, but only qualitative evidence can provide us with the experience of ordinary members of the society in their own words rather than those of an outsider's questionnaire. Exploring the ambiguities of Russian attitudes toward political parties, both are required. …

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