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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Message From Russia's Electorate

Across Russia, voters have stayed away in droves during the country's first free local elections. None of the 32 regions and republics that held local polls over the past weekend had a turnout higher than 40 percent. Ten of Russia's 89 regions and republics that held such polls this month could not muster the necessary 25 percent turnout and had to reschedule the elections for the fall.


The message voters are sending is clear: They do not believe that they will improve their lot by voting.


In the space of three years, Russian voters have elected a president, voted in two referendums, approved a new constitution and elected a parliament. Despite this activity, major political events have taken place independently of the results of these votes.


Voters supported Boris Yeltsin's rule and economic policies in an April 1993 referendum that the president promised would solve his power struggle with parliament. Ultimately, that task required tanks.


In a functioning democracy, voters with a gripe can vote the ruling party out of power. Although these are Russia's first multiparty local polls, few of the candidates have any party affiliation. Most are the same people that ran the provinces under Communist rule: the factory directors, collective farm heads and former Communist functionaries whose ex-party headquarters are now called local administrations.


A good deal of the blame for voter apathy lies with Yeltsin's administration. Yeltsin ordered these elections last year as part of his plan to sweep away the system of local and regional representative councils, or soviets. The idea had been to replace the bloated, reactionary soviets with a more streamlined system of representative power. But the ground rules set by Yeltsin's administration made the new representative bodies little more than rubber stamps for local and regional administrations.


Then, in December, Yeltsin issued a decree allowing heads of local administration to preside over local councils, further blurring the concept of separation of powers.


Finally, the law on local government has been hung up in parliament for three months, and figures to stay that way for some time. All of this means that people do not know what powers will be invested in the bodies they are electing.


In many regions whose elections were considered valid, fewer than two-thirds of the seats in new parliaments and city assemblies will be filled, meaning that the new bodies will not have a quorum and will not be able to pass decisions.


Until voters see elections as a chance to elect functioning, truly representative bodies, they will continue to vote as they have in these elections -- with their feet.