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Perspective
Volume IV, No 1 (September-October 1993)

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A Problematic Electoral System
By URI RA'ANAN
Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy

Assuming that Russia's elections are held as scheduled on December 12, most voters will be required to cast up to six separate ballots: For the State Duma, the lower house of the new Federal Assembly, two votes will be required, since half of the Duma's 450 members are to be elected in 225 single member districts and the other half by proportional representation at large (with party lists competing in Russia as a whole). Thus, separate votes will have to be cast for an individual Duma candidate and for a Duma party list. In the case of the Federal Council, the upper house, each of its 88 current electoral regions will vote for two members and every elector will be entitled to cast up to two ballots. Simultaneously, Russia's new constitution will be submitted to a referendum and some regional councils will also be chosen.

The number of competing parties and blocs of parties at this time appears to be large, moreover with a bewildering array of labels, which in many instances look well-nigh identical while representing quite different segments of the political spectrum. (In case the Russian voter manages somehow to decipher which of the Duma' s at-large lists represents what platform, candidates for the Duma's single-member constituencies and for the Federation Council will be running without stated party affiliation.) Russia's emerging "electoral culture" dates back at most to 1991, when Yel'tsin defeated five other candidates in the elections for the Russian presidency. Thus, an enormous burden is being placed upon an inexperienced electorate that, in any case, has been compelled to devote most of its attention to the struggle for economic survival and whose political consciousness might have been enhanced by exposure to an electoral campaign had a reasonable period been allocated (discussed below).

Invalidation of Elections
If fewer than two party lists succeed in meeting this deadline (presumably because of inability to gather 100,000 signatures), the Duma's at-large contests are to be invalidated and all the single-member constituencies are supposed to be turned into two-member constituencies. (The 100,000-signature barrier, of course, constitutes a significant hurdle only if a serious effort is made to validate all of the relevant signatures which, in the case of more than a score of different party lists, may amount to a total of several million.)

Initially, registration for the Duma was supposed to take place no later than 40 days (27 days for the Federation Council) before elections, i.e., November 2 . Yel'tsin rejected requests to have the date of the elections postponed so as to avoid telescoping the campaign period into a mere 3 4 weeks . Instead, the period for collecting the required number of signatures appears to have been extended by a week (two weeks for Duma single-member constituencies). If at least two party lists fail to comply with this deadline (presumably because of inability to gather 100,000 signatures),the Duma's at-large contests are to be invalidated and all the single member constituencies are supposed to be turned into two member constituencies.

However, to compete in an individual Duma constituency, a candidate (unless nominated by a registered party) must gather the signatures of at least 1% (originally 2%) of that district's electorate--a proportion over 10 times as high as the percentage needed for the all-Russian lists. (In the case of the Federation Council, similar provisions apply.) For single- or double-member constituencies, precisely the same time constraints prevail as for the Duma's at-large elections. Consequently, the identical scenarios that might lead to the invalidation of the at-large contests are likely also to affect individual constituencies. (The only mitigating factor is that individuals are free to give their signatures to more than a single party or candidate.)

Even once these initial hurdles have been overcome and the electoral process has been initiated, further major obstacles have to be surmounted. If before election day only a single candidate is left to contest a single-member constituency (or only two candidates in a double-member constituency), the election in that area is to be postponed for 12 weeks. Moreover, if fewer than 25% of registered voters in all of Russia participate, the elections will be invalidated altogether, while failure of the same percentage of the electorate to participate in any individual constituency will nullify the election there. Additionally, to win any of Russia's at-large seats, a political party or bloc must obtain at least 5% of the eligible votes. If fewer than two parties manage to surmount this hurdle, the at-large elections are invalidated. (In this instance, as in the case of failure of at-large lists to obtain 100,000 signatures, the single-member constituencies are to elect two members each.)

 

"None of the Above"
This does not exhaust the list of potential pitfalls. For reasons about which one might speculate, an additional category has been added to the ballots for all elections to both houses of the Federation Assembly, namely "none of the above" (actually, "against all candidates/lists"). In the case of the at-large Russian party lists, the elections shall be invalid if the number of votes cast for "none of the above" exceeds the total number of votes for all of the lists. Where single- (or double-) member constituencies are concerned, the election in the individual constituency shall be invalidated if the number of votes cast for "none of the above" exceeds the number of votes cast for the leading candidate (respectively, two leading candidates). In the case of the Federation Council, the leading candidate may be elected if the number of votes cast for "none of the above" exceeds only the number obtained by the candidate with the second highest tally. (presumably, a supplementary election would be needed to fill that second seat.)

It may be that this peculiar provision is due partly to historic and partly to tactical considerations. During the Soviet period, to vote for a candidate involved crossing out all the other names. Consequently, in the 1990 elections for the USSR Congress of People' s Deputies, there were instances in which a candidate running unopposed lost because a majority of the voters crossed out his name. The current provision may be a derivative of this custom. However, another consideration may be involved: In case voters were tempted to stay home on December 12 because of a "plague on all your houses" sentiment, some members of this group could be induced to participate because the same sentiment could be expressed more clearly by voting "none of the above." Their number might suffice to bring the percentage of the active electorate above the required minimum of 25%; on the other hand, a large turnout by "none of the above" voters might swamp the "positive" ballots sufficiently to invalidate the vote in individual electoral districts.

In any case, the various provisions listed here demonstrate that the potential for invalidation of Russia's elections, entirely or in part, is considerable.

 

Constant Tinkering
It may be noted that several recent revisions of the newly drafted electoral law are mentioned in this article, such as the halving of the number of signatures required to register a party list or individual candidacy and the postponement of the final date for registration, whittling down the number of days remaining for the actual campaign. These and other significant modifications are the result of constant tinkering with the clauses and a tendency to improvise, confusing not merely the inexperienced electorate, but even members of the electoral commission who contradict themselves and each other from time to time.

Consequently, the supposedly final version of the text contains outright errors. Thus Annex III of the Duma electoral law demonstrates the mechanics of the particular formula of proportionality applicable to the 225 at-large seats. An example is presented of six parties and the hypothetical votes each obtained; the available seats are apportioned between them, each party successfully garnering some. That is very nice, of course, except that the smallest of these hypothetical parties received only 4% of the votes and the electoral law requires a 5% minimum for allocation of at large seats!

To be sure, some of the improvisation has been due to events unrelated to the electoral law itself: Thus, it had been intended that the Federation Council be nominated by the executive and legislative authorities in Russia's various regions. However, as a result of the questionable attitude of many of these regional authorities during October's armed rebellion, it was decided to hold elections instead.

Superficially, Russia's electoral system bears close resemblance to Germany's, both countries electing half of the lower house membership in single-member constituencies and the other half by proportional representation of party lists obtaining more than 5% of the vote. Germany's current system has proven highly successful and this fact undoubtedly influenced the authors of Russia's law. However, the discrepancies are far from minor. The German law contains none of the many provisions under which Russian elections can be invalidated. Neither the 25% minimal turnout of the electorate is required nor is there "none of the above" clause. German parties and candidates do not have to collect a large number of signatures to compete. The time allocated for the election campaign is quite adequate -- neither too short nor too long.

Apart from the constitutional differences -- the Bundestag enjoys much more power than the prospective Duma, while the Bundesrat is a much weaker body than the Federal Council -- the allocation of seats follows entirely different rules. In Germany, the number of seats obtained by a party in the single-member constituencies is subtracted (from the total to which it is entitled in proportion to its vote) before the additional at-large seats are allocated. Under Russia's law the at-large seats are apportioned according to the percentage of votes obtained by a party list, without taking into consideration the single-member constituencies won by that party's individual candidates.

The mathematical formula applied in Germany's proportional representation follows the d'Hondt "highest average" method, which tends to favor the larger parties, whereas Russia, for reasons unknown is applying a unique formula that will favor smaller parties in determining how many seats are allocated to each party list. This factor will make it more difficult for Russia's largest party to obtain an absolute majority in the new Duma. In this case, as in the clause that annuls the elections even though one party has overcome the 5% hurdle, one has to assume that he authors were haunted by the specter of the CPSU and its manipulation of the "elections", rather than anticipating a genuinely democratic electoral bloc winning a stable majority. The most democratic elements in Russia's arena appear to be particularly obsessed by this nightmare, since several have objected to the validation of political parties by means of signatures accompanied by ID numbers, lest these be used as written evidence if Russia were to revert to the repressive habits of the past.

An Edge for Leaders
Some trouble has been taken to give an edge to leaders of the various parties. Thus (presumably prominent) individuals may compete both on the at-large lists and in the individual constituencies. A candidate winning in both will take his/her seat in the individual constituency, thus vacating a slot on the at-large list. In order to allow for such eventualities, parties may overload their at-large lists with up to 270 candidates for 225 seats.

Until the recent untoward events the "separation of powers" had been a fetish for Russian democrats. Thus, the original draft of he electoral law had devoted a special paragraph to the "Incompatibility of a Deputy's Status With an Official Position or Work in State or Other Bodies." However, in light of the deadlock created by the old Congress of People's Deputies, and in order to strengthen Russia's Choice, the bloc of Yel'tsin's supporters, by the inclusion of prominent names, members of the presidential apparatus are competing for seats in the Federal Assembly, negating, in effect, the "separation of powers." Members of the Council of Ministers have joined other reformist coalitions. Significantly, several officials have tried to have it both ways, taking leaves of absence from their posts, but keeping open the possibility that they may resign their newly gained seats in parliament to return to their positions -- after attracting votes to the party lists on which their names appeared.

An unusual provision in the electoral law permits parties -- without obligating them -- to divide their at-large lists for the Duma between candidates nominated to compete in Russia as a whole and others who will be competing in very sizable geographic subdivisions of Russia (e.g., the Urals, Siberia, the Black Earth Zone, or any other subdivision a party might desire to create for this purpose).

For example, a party may place its top 15 names on the all-Russian portion of its at-large list, another 6 on the Urals portion, another 4 on the Siberian portion, etc. If, in proportion to the percentage of the total votes it obtained, it is entitled to a total of 21 at-large seats, all the 15 names on the all-Russian portion will be elected, and the remaining 6 will be drawn from the various geographical subdivisions (in proportion to the vote obtained by that party in each of those subdivisions). While the intention behind this provision is laudable (presumably, to approximate the German system whereby at-large seats are allocated separately in each of the 16 Lander), it creates further delays in an already foreshortened pre-election period; various parties may create different subdivisions, thus expanding exponentially the number of different regional ballots that would have to be printed in a Russia which still used Linotype outside its urban centers.

One of the many problems of the electoral system is its unnecessary complexity which makes it very hard for he voter to comprehend particularly in an electorate that has little experience of the democratic process. (this begs for an unusually large number of spoiled ballots and for a high rate of abstention from voting.) The degree of this convolution is indicated by the difficulty its authors have had in coming up with a lucid explanation. Adoption of Germany's electoral system without the "excess baggage" might have made more sense.

 


Copyright ISCIP 1993
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially for
Perspective.




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