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Elections in Russia will be free and fair one day - but not soon by Lyubov Tsukanova

Few Guarantees in the Law on Elections.

Novoe Vremya, No. 23, June 2002

The Federation Council reluctantly passed a law "On the main guarantees of electoral rights and the right to participate in referendums for citizens of the Russian Federation". Most senators abstained.

The revised law is something the regional authorities would have gladly avoided. What really upsets them is that the law introduces a mixed majoritary-proportional system of voting for regional legislatures. The so-called gubernatorial lists have been successfully tested in numerous regions, and the Duma considers that only party lists will be able to defeat this technique.

There is another important innovation as well: a mandatory two- round system at gubernatorial elections. It will not entirely negate the effect of incumbents using state resources, but will improve the chances of alternative candidates who inevitably lose to incumbents in the first round of voting.

Actually, most innovations are supposed to weaken the influence of incumbents in elections - this is a problem in all elections. The most controversial provision of the previous law has finally been removed from the text. It concerned the registration of candidates or lists. From now on, it will be impossible to deny a candidate (or list) registration on the grounds of providing untrue information about assets or income. Traffic police and tax inspectorates will no longer play a deciding role. Voters must be informed that a certain candidate running for a certain office has provided false information about assets, but the voters themselves will have to decide whether it is an honest mistake or malicious intent.

Election commissions will lose the right to disqualify candidates for violations during the campaign. A court decision will be needed for that no later than five days before voting (instead of three days under the old legislation).

Unfortunately the legislators failed to summon enough courage to revoke this disqualification power altogether, even though absolutely everyone admits that courts face unprecedented pressure and no one is surprised when significant rivals are kicked out of the race through use of the courts. Vladimir Tumanov, former chairman of the Constitutional Court, says quite correctly that unlike the Russian system, in other countries it is possible to take legal action after the vote, having an election declared invalid by the court, if a serious breach of the law is proved. In other words, not everything is decided on voting day. What counts here is enabling individuals to vote as they think best.

With all its improvements, however, even the new legislation does not guarantee free and fair elections. It does not make tampering by incumbents impossible. It does not offer a solution to the serious problem of dirty political techniques. We can only admit that free and fair elections are to a considerable extent a matter of political culture and maturity of society, and expect the passage of time and the democratic habit of electing governments with minimal legislative obstacles to make the election process more or less civilized in Russia.

In any case, right-wing factions of the Duma are glad that they have made the basic law somewhat more democratic. Sergei Mitrokhin of Yabloko considers, however, that the law now includes some new flaws.

Mitrokhin: The formation of election commissions will be considerably less democratic now: higher commissions will have considerable influence over lower ones and the potential to intervene in their decisions. The commissions may use various sanctions against lower commissions and even order their disbandment. I do not rule out the possibility, by the way, that all this is being done for the upcoming presidential race. The Central Election Commission wants a more manageable structure of local election commissions to be able to control the outcome.

Question: What is missing in the election legislation?

Sergei Mitrokhin: In my view, the lack of legal regulation to cover the Vybory (Election) computer system is one of the problems. These days, this is an instrument used to brainwash the public and a tool to manipulate public opinion. An appropriate law will be tabled soon, but I do not think it will change the situation substantially, given the government ‘s comprehension of the problem. We will insist on at least some public supervision over the system. In my view, we should make sure that all observers are allowed to be present when the data is entered into computers. We need to prosecute people for entering incorrect data, it should be as serious an offense as falsification of the results.. We should also have the law indicate which bodies are permitted to technically maintain the system, to prevent the secret services from performing this function.

We also have to set the lower threshold of voter turnout, because a lot of local government bodies do not get elected merely because voters do not care to turn up. The law specifies 20% but I think that it is too much. The situation when government bodies are not elected but are appointed, is far worse than when the choice is made by a politically active minority. People will never vote again if they turn up once and vote, only to be told that their will and opinion did not really matter. I think we should fight the Unity party's harmful insistence that a higher voter turnout threshold be specified for gubernatorial elections. I see this as a provocation, aimed at ensuring the appointment of regional leaders on the pretext that too few voters bother to come and elect their own regional leader.

Question: What do you view as the most important feature of the new legislation?

Sergei Mitrokhin: The provision that 50% of members of regional legislatures are to be elected by party lists. We view this as a step in the direction of a true system of parties in Russia. Besides, this is a serious attack on the abuse of state resources by incumbent regional

leaders, since at least half of the legislature in each region will be independent of the regional leader. These members will not be elected just because the regional leader wants them on the legislature. They will be elected because they belong to a political party.

Unfortunately, the regions are given some breathing space because the law will come into full effect only in the middle of 2003. Until then, the regions themselves will choose their election system. I fail to see the need for the delay and attribute it to pressure applied by certain major lobbyists. Like St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev - who will have elections for the legislature of his region this autumn.

Neither do I rule out the possibility that some provisions of the law (like mandatory election by party lists) will annoy regional leaders so seriously that they may try to get the president to veto the law and set up a conciliation commission. Through the commission, regional leaders would have the law suitably amended. It would be a dangerous situation indeed, as in the case when the Kremlin was so weak that it permitted regional leaders to run for a third term in office.

Novoe Vremya, No. 23, June 2002

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