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15 Mar, 2010 11:20

Four Russian parties make it to regional parliaments

According to preliminary results, all four political parties represented in Russia’s State Duma managed to win seats in regional parliaments as a result of Sunday’s local polls.

Those include the United Russia party – the parliamentary majority chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the Communists, Liberal-Democrats (LDPR) and Fair Russia. Eight regions held parliamentary elections on March 14.

Voters in 76 of the country’s 83 regions cast their ballots on Unified Election Day, choosing authorities at different levels. About 32 million people went to the polls to elect deputies to the local legislative authorities, local government and heads of local administrations. Overall, candidates competed for about 40,000 seats in different regional state bodies.

Despite the United Russia party traditionally winning a string of seats, the Communist party also made a strong showing. Support for United Russia has slipped in several areas – most prominently Irkutsk, one of Siberia’s largest cities, where a Communist candidate has been elected Mayor. Both leading parties have called the results a success.

A Fair Russia candidate won the mayoral seat in the city of Ust-Ilimsk in Irkutsk region.

According to Russia's Central Election Commission, the voting passed peacefully, with a turnout of over 42 per cent and no allegations of ballot fraud.

Everybody seems to be quite content with the outcome of this election, assessed Olga Kamenchuk, communications director for the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre.

“Now we will have wide representation of opposition parties in regional parliaments, but still only those which have representation in the State Duma,” she said.

Still there is no consistent trend of passing power to opposition parties, and United Russia remains a no-alternative choice for many voters, a fifth of whom had no intention of voting at all, according to social research prior to the elections.

Claims over fraud in previous 2009 elections

The allegations of fraud during the previous, October 2009 regional elections, led to a brief parliamentary crisis. After the elections, in which the ruling United Russia claimed an overwhelming victory, all three opposition parties (the Communists, the Liberal Democrats and Fair Russia) walked out of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, protesting over the election results and demanding an urgent meeting with the President. They claimed widespread voting irregularities and insisted on fresh elections in Moscow, the Tula region and the Marij El republic. Subsequent checks, however, revealed no serious violations. Neither have there been any major court proceedings.

Improving Russia’s political system

Following this political scandal, President Dmitry Medvedev in his November 2009 address to the Federal Assembly, acknowledged some problems in the organization of elections: “Some aspects of our political life are subject to public criticism. The critics note problems in organizing the elections, the low level of political culture and the deficit of deeply-elaborated alternative suggestions on particular questions of socio-economic development.” He noted that special attention will be drawn to the problems of regional elections.

The president also signaled that it is necessary to “give way” to all political parties, including opposition parties. In an address to the State Council, Medvedev proposed a draft law that would lower the threshold at regional elections from the current 7 per cent to 5 per cent, to allow more parties be represented at regional parliaments. The President also noted that there are some local parliaments in which only one party is represented. “One political faction, I believe, is not enough for any region,” Medvedev stated. “There are people who have different opinions who vote for other parties. Perhaps, even two [parties] would not be enough.”

As Nezavisimaja Gazeta writes, citing an unnamed source in the government, the Kremlin wanted to put a law in place which suggests that at least four parties should be represented in the local parliaments. According to the source, Russia’s leadership was eager to put this law in place before these elections, and by doing so, the authorities were trying to avoid the situation which happened during the last elections in October 2009. Back then, only two parties (United Russia and Communists) made it to the Moscow Duma.

Opposition still not satisfied

Nevertheless, despite several calls from the President for more parties to be represented in local parliaments, it seems the ruling United Russia party does not want to give up its positions easily. As Novie Izvestiya writes, this election campaign has been even more aggressive than the previous one, and the United Russia party is trying to fight its declining popularity in some of the regions. However, Duma Deputy and Communist party member, Vadim Solovjev, in an interview to the daily, assesses the overall situation ahead of the elections as “favorable”, noting that people have become more leftist as a result of the financial crisis, and many do not want to vote for the ruling party. The deputy says that the United Russia ratings are falling and as a result it is trying to improve the situation by using its “administrative” resources.

Concerns over the elections’ transparency

Concerns over the fairness of the elections were raised even before the voting started. As Kommersant daily reported, opposition parties in the cities of Yekaterinburg and Astrakhan claimed that people working in state companies were forced to vote in early elections and by absentee ballots. According to the newspaper, which further quoted its sources in the Sverdlovsk electoral commission, the number of issued absentee ballots this time exceeded the number of those ballots given during the presidential campaign in 2008 by almost seven times. Duma Deputy Sergey Obukhov said this was a “mere reflection of the administrative resource, which gives 10 per cent of the vote to the ruling party.”

In Astrakhan, less than 10 days before the official start of early elections, 6,800 people already came to vote and, the opposition’s monitors said, most of them were municipal body employees. “The mayor’s office decided to fabricate the elections by conducting them in advance,” said the leader of the local Fair Russia party branch, Oleg Shein. However, a source in the United Russia party told Kommersant that the mass “early elections” had been practically stopped everywhere by a call from the President’s administration on March 5.

Changes to improve voting system and elections’ transparency

A special commission was set up by the Russian President to improve the current election laws. On the 24th of November 2009, Dmitry Medvedev also vowed to make the procedure of acquiring absentee ballots stricter. According to the draft law, it will be much more difficult to obtain and to fabricate an absentee ballot. A person who wishes to get one, in addition to a written request to acquire the ballot, will have to present a document confirming that he cannot attend the election on the due date (i.e. a document proving that he is on a business trip or in hospital). Also the new absentee ballot will have a much higher level of protection and will be personalized.

Also the role of the law-enforcement agencies will be increased. All incidents will be registered by a maximum number of witnesses in order to make sure that the person who violated the law will be held responsible. The head of the Central Election Committee, Vladimir Churov, said a person who casts a vote will also be able to personally check that his or her vote was counted; however, Churov has not specified how exactly this will be achieved.

Some of the changes will already be implemented in the current elections. Thus, the electoral commissions are encouraged to work with people, who due to various reasons have not yet acquired or have lost their registration (according to Russian law, in order to be able to appear on a voting list, a person needs to be registered at the address, where he or she currently lives).

The Central Election Committee is also going to try out a system of electronic voting in several electoral stations. If successful, Churov noted, the technology will be implemented more widely. “Well, the way we envisage this is that a person would come to a polling station, show their passport and vote by either scanning the paper ballot or by filling in an electronic one on the screen. Then at 8pm, when the polling station is closed, these electronic machines, practically without human interference, will post the results on the Internet”. Also, as part of the experiment, some of the ballot stations will have web cameras to ensure more transparent and fair elections.

The Unified Election Day has been held in Russia twice a year, in October and March, since 2006. The day has been designed to reduce the number of multiple elections on different levels during the year by combining them all on only two days.

Olga Masalkova, RT