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Russian Elections – Affirming Democracy or Confirming Autocracy?

Message Nicolai Petro
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This comment first appeared in the Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel (March 7, 2008)

It is important to distinguish between the electoral process, the electoral campaign, and the electoral outcome. Those who fail to do so seek to disparage the choice of the Russian people, rather than to understand it.

Few observers have challenged the election process itself, which was marred by glitches of the kind one routinely encounters in national elections. Instead, most of the criticism has been leveled at the electoral campaign, and while there is always room for improvement, they lack certain credibility since the same criticisms could just as easily be leveled at any European country.

For example, all countries regulate the participation of political groups by applying filters to their ability to participate in the elections process. Some, like the United States, apply these filters at the local level, through a complex set of fifty different state electoral standards. Typically, states require somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the voters from the previous elections to register a party in the next ballot. This has reduced the people’s options to two.

Others, like Germany, set up their barriers at the other end of the process, namely 5 percent for the entrance of parties into parliament. Sometimes, as in the case of Italy, barriers as high as 10 percent are set for coalitions to enter parliament.

In any event, a direct comparison of the requirements for registering a political party quickly reveals that the current Russian laws in this area are among the most liberal in the Western world. Experimentally in this electoral cycle, the barrier for entry into the national parliament was set at 7 percent. While this is relatively high by European standards, it had no impact on the outcome, since the parties that did not make it into parliament all received far less than 7 percent of the vote.

Complaints were raised about Medvedev's dominant coverage in the news media, but again, this is hardly unique. As in most countries, Russia's electoral laws try to weave a balance between equal media access and restrictions on freedom of expression. Thus, all parties and their presidential candidates received 42 hours of free media air time during the one-month campaign period. They had the option to supplement this with up to $17 million of their own funds.

But, as the American elections have repeatedly shown, it is impossible to create an entirely level playing field, particularly when there are candidates who hold active government office. One either winds up ignoring legitimate news about the government’s activities because it would report more about one candidate's activities, or one has to provoke some sort of "response" from the other side.

This latter is often preferred in the United States, though it has the drawback of creating a somewhat artificial political spectacle. Moreover, it is only manageable because the mainstream media in the United States limits its coverage to two political parties, effectively removing "marginal" parties and candidates (Ron Paul, for example) from our political consciousness. 

Russian electoral law does not allow public media entities to do that. Consequently, as the number of parties registered for an election expands, the issue of fairness and balance will multiply exponentially.

This leaves the most serious complaint against the Russian elections: their outcome. In the opinion of many Western observers, the Russian people simply made the wrong choice by voting in favor of a continuation of the present political course.

The fact that this is self-evidently an undemocratic stance points to a fundamental conflict of values between Russia and the West, and explains the diametrically opposed assessments each side gives to these elections.

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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