In his first term, Putin abolished the single district voting, so that all 450 deputies were elected according to the party list balloting. At the time, many people were critical of this ostensibly undemocratic move. Previously many commentators had argued for a purely party or ‘proportional representation’ vote, in order to develop Russia’s historically weak political parties. New criticism of the return to the mixed party-list-district system now asserts that the plethora of opposition parties will result in new liberalized party registration procedures that will divide the opposition vote and leave their parties outside the parliament and on the streets as before.
It remains unclear why Russia’s opposition parties can’t merge and reduce their numbers to create a coalition of large democratic, nationalist, socialist opposition parties, thus avoiding the atomization problem.
The ‘white ribbon’ opposition’s leaders proposed a solution to atomization in meetings with then President Medvedev a year ago: allow the creation of election blocs consisting of several parties. Under such a scheme, parties and blocs would comprise the list of parties for which voters could cast their ballots in the party list (for the voting half of the Duma vote).
In a marathon press conference in December Putin called for a discussion of this idea, signaling he might accept such a compromise. Now it has been included in the draft law that will return Russia to the mixed Duma election system. Plus, there is a proposal that the barrier (which party blocs will have to reach in order to gain a share of Duma seats) will be set at 7 percent instead of the 5 percent barrier for individual parties.
In sum, it appears Putin is making a significant compromise with the opposition and allowing the liberalization of the electoral system as proposed by Medvedev, to carry forward.
Given the crackdown on some opposition activists and leaders, how does one explain Putin’s liberal moves. First, it is clear that he takes the opposition’s political potential seriously, and is wise enough to accommodate it to some extent. At the same time, by opening up the system, the Kremlin can draw into it the more moderate opposition elements and thereby perhaps split and weaken the strength of the street opposition. In addition, by pressuring the more radical elements prevalent among the nationalists and socialists with the threat of criminal investigations (such as those being leveled against Aleksandr Navalnyi) in addition to the risks of exorbitant fines for violating demonstration laws and agreements, Putin may drive the more democratic and risk-averse elements into the system, thus isolating the beleaguered irreconcilables and radicals.
As insurance, Putin retains the option of permitting or encouraging more election fraud to compensate for any decline in United Russia’s share of the vote. However, this option has become less feasible because of the mobilization of opposition groups in general, since the opposition coalesced in response to real and perceived cheating and because of increased activism in voting monitoring by such groups as the League of Voters.
Another reform of the political system that Putin has seen through is a new system for electing senators. The Russian constitution requires that one senator from each region be selected by the governor, and the other selected by the regional legislative assembly. As has been noted elsewhere, last spring Russia returned to the election of governors after having had them appointed for several years. Now a regional gubernatorial candidate is allowed to select a list of three senatorial nominees, one of whom (if he wins) will become the executive branch senator for that region.
The legislative branch’s senator must now be elected from among its deputies, whereas before, under a system instituted by Medvedev, the legislatures could select any elected official from the region. Importantly, the new law requires that senators have lived in the region they wish to represent for at least five years.
One question remains unanswered: Is the two-tier strategy a reflection of confusion or division within Putin’s inner circle––or his own way of maintaining stability throughout Russia?