How people elect parliaments
Russia’s presidential ‘election’ is happening this weekend. Everyone already knows who the winner will be.
But President Vladimir Putin also knows how to win a parliamentary election – merely by altering the electoral system.
In the last Russian parliamentary elections in 2016, support for Putin’s party dropped nearly 4 million votes compared to their 2011 election result – but increased their seats from 238 to 343 of the 450 places in the state Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.
Since a democratic form of governance was instituted in Russia in the early 1990s, the Duma has seen seven elections.
The first four parliamentary elections were conducted on the basis of 225 seats – half the places – being elected in local single-member divisions by plurality (first past the post) voting. The other half of the seats were allocated directly to the main political parties in proportion to their national vote share, but only among parties that win at minimum of 7% of the national vote.
The huge, closed-list party seat allocations has meant than many careers in the Russian parliament are entirely at the discretion of party leaders.
This is not really a party-proportional electoral system, but rather one generally termed mixed-member majoritarian. There is no guarantee that the two classes of voting will actually combine to give parties a final proportional share of all the seats.
When Putin became President of Russia in 2000, he created a party vehicle for his administration – the United Russia party. At its first electoral outing in 2003, it scored the most votes, but that was still only 38% of those cast.
At that poll United Russia won somewhat less than half the local divisions, and slightly more than half the seats allocated proportionally (only 4 parties passed the 7% threshold, which helped to boost United Russia’s allocation). Overall, the governing party held just 223 seats in that term of parliament – two short of a nominal majority.
But in any case, in those years political influence in Russia was passing decisively away from the Duma and into the hands of the presidency and its occupants, Putin and later Dmitri Medvedev.
Putin served two terms as President, from 2000-2008. Being ineligible to serve a third consecutive term, in 2008 he swapped jobs with his chosen Prime Minister Medvedev, before swapping back into the presidency again in 2012. Thereafter the presidential term was extended to 6 years, which is why Putin has had to go to the bother of being re-elected this year, for what is thought to be his final 6-year term.
With saturation control of the media, and the widespread public belief that his administration has restored Russia’s international stature, there is no doubt that Putin will be re-elected this weekend. Opinion polls put him at around 70% support, with a few other candidates registering around 5%.
The banning and jailing opponents who show any prospect of making a plausible electoral challenge has helped boost the odds of Putin’s re-election before, and again this year. Over the years significant opposition politicians have seen their health sharply decline in the lead-up to elections.
But in any case, the Russian government also took the precaution of altering the system for electing the Duma after United Russia’s modest performance in 2003. At the elections of 2007 and 2011, the 225 local electoral divisions were abolished and all the 450 seats were allocated directly to the better performed parties.
Russia’s total electoral registration has been strangely stable since 1993, when there were 106 million registered voters. It has slowly drifted up to reach 110 million voters in 2016 – significantly slower change than the rate of population growth.
But the voter turnouts at elections have been much more volatile.
In 2003 the United Russia party won the votes of just under 23 million voters out of a total turnout of 59 million. In 2007 the party surged up to 44.7 million supporters out of nearly 69 million voters. The party dominated that term of parliament – during which Putin took his turn at being Prime Minister – with nearly three-quarters of the seats.
But the support fell away sharply at the 2011 elections, with United Russia’s tally dropping to 32 million votes out of a turnout of 64 million. Having changed the system to one of complete party seat allocation, United Russia had to live with a narrow majority of the parliamentary seats – just 238. Rivals the Communist Party, A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party almost began to look like an effective partisan opposition.
How to address such an indignity? Simple – restore the 225 local electoral divisions. With United Russia by now travelling in a relatively dominant position with around half the vote against multiple small rivals, the party’s local candidates were highly likely to win pluralities of the vote in most of the local districts.
Which is exactly what happened. In the 2016 elections United Russia’s absolute voter support dropped yet again, to just 28 million votes nationwide. But the overall turnout also crashed massively. After seeing turnouts generally around the low 60%s from 1995 to 2011, at the 2016 elections opposition support as well as that for United Russia both fell sharply, together amounting to just 47% of the registered voters.
United Russia still achieved its goal of sweeping the restored local electoral divisions, winning a massive 203 of the 225. Together with its proportional allocation of the party seats, it was back up to 343 out of 450 members of the Duma, with the opposition parties devastated to just a few dozen seats each.
Make no mistake, the Russian government knows how to win elections, including even Russian elections.
The current Duma is now one of the most party-disproportional assemblies in the world. But equally concerning is that the Russian population itself has learned that there is not a lot of point in participating in such uncompetitive elections.
Previous total valid-vote turnouts for the presidential elections include 73 million votes in both 1996 and 2000, 66 million in 2004, 73 million in 2008, and 71 million in 2012.
(Ironically, the most votes ever cast for a Russian presidential candidate was not for any of Putin’s three wins, nor Boris Yeltsin’s two wins, but Medvedev’s haul of 52 million votes in 2008. Putin’s three tallies have been 39, 49 and 46 million votes.)
All of which makes for the one interesting aspect of Sunday’s presidential election: will turnout be embarrassingly low.
With no competition and a universal expectation of the result, the measure of the event may be whether turnout falls below 47% to become the least-patronised national election since the establishment of the modern Russian state.
Russian government authorities reportedly see this as their only election-day concern, and are actively attempting to drive voter enthusiasm for the Putin re-selection campaign.
39.74 million votes – the lowest of Putin’s tallies, recorded in his first election in the year 2000 – will be another metric by which to measure this Sunday’s result.