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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Russia's 2007 Duma election

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Voters in Russia go to the polls on Sunday, December 2, 2007 to elect a new State Duma, the lower house of the country's federal legislature. Under an amended electoral law, all 450 Duma seats will be distributed by the largest remainder method of proportional representation among parties receiving at least seven percent of the nationwide vote. However, when the parties that have at least seven percent of the vote win a combined total of sixty percent of the vote or less, the largest party or parties below the threshold also qualifies (or qualify) for parliamentary representation, until the combined share of all the qualifying parties stands over sixty percent. In addition, if a single party receives over sixty percent of the vote, and none of the other parties reaches the seven percent barrier, the second largest party is entitled to participate in the distribution of Duma seats.

Previously, half the Duma seats were filled in single-member constituencies, while the remaining half was allocated by proportional representation among parties polling at least five percent of the vote.

Since the beginning of the century, there has been a significant concentration of power around the presidency, and the Russian legislature has been largely reduced to a rubber stamp. However, President Vladimir Putin - who has held office for more than seven years - is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in next year's presidential election, and he will be running for a Duma seat on the list of the officially-sanctioned United Russia party. Supposedly, Putin intends to become prime minister, and in this manner continue to rule the country behind a weak president when his term comes to an end.

There is very little doubt that the ruling party will score an overwhelming victory in Sunday's vote: the major news media outlets are either controlled by the government or too afraid to criticize it out of fear of official reprisals, and the government has mobilized its resources in favor of United Russia, which faces a weak and divided opposition. Moreover, under Putin the Russian economy, fueled by high oil prices, has registered eight consecutive years of strong growth - in stark contrast to the economic and political chaos that characterized the presidency of Putin's predecessor, the late Boris Yeltsin. As a result, many Russians have acquiesced to the president's increasingly authoritarian concept of democracy, even though it is widely derided in the West as "managed democracy."

In fact, the new electoral law has been criticized as being yet another example of Putin's ongoing efforts to marginalize dissenting political opinions. However, it should be noted that Ukraine - which underwent a democratizing "Orange" revolution in 2004 - also adopted a fully proportional electoral system, replacing its previous Russian-style mixed system. That said, the seven percent electoral threshold is over twice as large as Ukraine's three percent barrier, and considerably higher than the thresholds in place in most Europan countries with proportional representation systems (although Turkey has an even higher - and highly controversial - ten percent barrier).

At any rate, while Putin may have successfully sidelined the opposition parties, his apparent plan to rule the country as prime minister is not without risks. A seemingly pliant successor in the presidency could prove to be far less accomodating after taking office, setting the stage for a potentially destabilizing power struggle - which could have serious economic repercussions, particularly since under Putin the Russian government has increased its control over strategic areas of the country's economy.


Partial election results published by Russia's Central Election Commission show United Russia ahead by an overwhelming margin, with the Communist Party and the far-right Liberal Democratic Party in distant second- and third-place finishes, respectively.