Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Intrigue Pervades Election Lawsuit

A high-profile legal challenge to the way Russia elects its parliament got off to a shaky start Thursday when the mystery plaintiff failed to show up for his big day in the Supreme Court.


Red-faced attorneys for one Mikhail Martinyuk, identified only as a Moscow voter who filed the suit, said they did not know where their client was -- only that he lives somewhere in Moscow.


Critics immediately seized on the confusion as evidence that the suit was orchestrated by President Boris Yeltsin as part of an assault on his communist and nationalist opponents in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.


Martinyuk filed a civil suit with the Supreme Court arguing that the proportional system -- through which half to this. He is a patsy," said Oleg Mironov, a Communist Duma deputy and lawyer who is representing the Duma in the court case.


"This is just a political farce that is organized by those who do not like the fact that the Communist Party is the biggest in the State Duma, and who want to compromise that faction by any means," he said. "This has been set up by the presidential clique."


Half of the 450 lawmakers in the Duma are directly elected by voters in their local districts. The remaining 225 seats are handed out to parties in proportion to the percentage of the nationwide vote that they polled in the election. A party must muster more than 5 per cent of the vote to qualify for any seats.


It is this clause that forms the basis of Martinyuk's case. "My client is just a regular voter ... who was deprived of his right to representation in the Duma" when the party for which he voted failed to clear the 5 percent barrier, said Yury Samsonov, one of the plaintiff's three attorneys.


A change in the electoral system could have wide-reaching consequences for the political balance of power. As the factions with the biggest proportion of deputies voted in by proportional representation, the Communists and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats would be hardest hit.


The Communists and their allies in the Duma have been locked in a long battle with the Kremlin, blocking key legislation and launching attacks on Yeltsin in resolutions and declarations.


This month the Duma for the first time overrode a Yeltsin veto, voting overwhelmingly for a bill claiming trophy art seized from Germany in World War II as federal property.


Yeltsin has pledged to fight back, and so far he appears to be relying heavily on the courts


The Kremlin has said it intends to challenge the trophy-art bill in the Constitutional Court. The newspaper Kommersant Daily reported Thursday that Yeltsin's aides also have filed suit against the Duma for discussing a law on the dismissal of the president in January.


Alexander Bukhvalov, the Kremlin's representative at the Supreme Court, was playing down his role in the proceedings, telling reporters that he was only there as an "interested party."


But after the close of the hearing, he was heard arranging a meeting with Martinyuk's lawyers to discuss the case.


Moreover, the Kremlin has gone out of its way to ensure the case has a high profile. The presidential administration insisted that the suit be heard at a full session of the Supreme Court instead of in a closed hearing that is standard in such cases.


"The president is unequivocally interested," said Bukhvalov. "The issue here is not party affiliations, not that Yeltsin sits here and [Communist leader Gennady] Zyuganov sits there. The executive is already tired. We're tired of receiving complaints [from voters about the proportional system] and being unable to do anything about it."


The Supreme Court alone is not empowered to change the electoral law; that is the prerogative of the Duma itself. But according to Bukhvalov, a decision in favor of Martinyuk would strengthen Yeltsin's hand in a future debate on the issue.


Thursday's court hearing could, in theory, have gone ahead without Martinyuk. The judge found a clerical error in the plaintiff's application, however, and postponed the hearing until April 17 so that Martinyuk's lawyers could consult with their client and correct the mistake.


The judge said that Martinyuk's presence at the next hearing was desirable, but not required.


Samsonov said his client had launched the court case on his own initiative and that suggestions someone else put him up to it were "stupid." But he did not seem confident when asked if Martinyuk would show up at the next hearing, saying only, "I hope so."


The lawyer said Martinyuk had decided to file suit after voting for Vladimir Lysenko's National Republican Party in the 1995 parliamentary elections. Lysenko is currently awaiting trial on charges that he blew up his own Duma office on the eve of the election.