Last Monday, the Russian Constitutional Court upheld a Federal Law that requires political parties to have at least 50,000 members and that each regional department have 500 members. Challenging the law was the Russian Communist Workers’ Party-Russian Communist Party (not to be confused with the Communist Party).
Currently, there are three major parties in Russia – United Russia (majority), the Communist Party, and the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). These three parties collectively received 62% of the vote in the 2003 Duma elections. A fourth party, Rodina (Motherland), was recently folded into three other small parties – the Party of Life, the Pensioners Party, and the People’s Party – to create Just Russia. Thus, the Duma elections this December will probably result in these four parties receiving enough votes (7%) to gain seats in the Duma, though it is possible that no single party will have a majority.
The law at issue in last Monday’s decision, along with other reforms – raising the bar for Duma seats from 5 to 7% and the formation of Just Russia – will hopefully strengthen Russia’s notoriously weak party system. The problem has never been a lack of parties – there were 180 registered in 2000 – but rather that the parties tended to represent the power interests of local elites rather than legitimate sectors of Russian society. Another major problem is the overlapping of parties. A perfect example is the party filing the complaint in Monday’s case – the Communist Workers Party-Russian Communist Party (not to be confused with the Communist Party of Russia, of course). Their raison d’être is that the Communist Party of Russia has become ‘social-democratic’ and that someone needs to pick up the Marxist-Leninist torch and carry it into the 21st Century. Unfortunately for them, not many Russians are enthusiastic about going back to the times of shortages and stagnation. Hence, they do not attract many members.
If and when the Western media picks up on last Monday’s decision, it will probably be reported in the now-familiar narrative of Russia’s democratic ‘backsliding’. This analysis fails in two major respects. First, it fails to recognize that limiting ballot access is a necessary and legitimate component of a democratic system. It is necessary because too many parties – especially with similar names and logos – can be confusing to the electorate and logistically difficult for electoral authorities. It is legitimate because line-drawing such as this is what democratic governments engage in all the time to ensure a well-functioning system. If the ballot is simply a free for all and any party can be listed, then parties with no constituency are placed next to those that represent legitimate segments of society. The second major problem with the criticism of Russia’s electoral reforms is that it fails to notice the likely salutary effect of the reforms. For example, in the 2003 Duma election, the two major liberal parties – Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) – each got approximately 4% of the vote, which was not enough to gain a seat in the Duma even under the previous 5% threshold. If, however, the two parties were to merge and run together in this year’s Duma election, they would likely receive the 7% they need to get representation in the Duma. And there is no reason why they should not run together – their ideologies and platforms are very similar. In fact, they have talked about merging in the past, but the oversized personalities of their leaders always prevent compromise. It is also worth pointing out that the ‘Against All’ selection on the ballot received more votes than either of the liberal parties (this choice has now been taken off the ballot).
Russia’s recent electoral reforms will likely have the intended effect of forcing several major parties to form out of the many similar and overlapping parties that currently exist. In the long run, bigger and stronger parties will benefit Russia’s democracy and move it away from a focus on the personalities of local elites and towards a focus on shared values and interests of different segments of society.