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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Reform to End All Elections

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The second election reform under President Vladimir Putin is practically complete. The president has signed the new law on electing State Duma deputies. And a new set of amendments to a long list of laws related to elections has begun to move through the Duma.

The essence of this reform is to distance citizens from real participation in the electoral process and, more broadly, from any kind of governmental decision-making. It will further reduce the amount of the feedback the authorities get from the people, and it will lead to the further centralization of the political system.

The first set of reforms a few years ago brought about the wholesale revision of election legislation in order to increase the Kremlin's control over the electoral process. Now, the authorities have changed more than procedure. They have dismantled whole sections of the electoral system. The public no longer elects governors or -- in the majority of instances -- mayors, and there are no more single-mandate districts for the Duma.

A party now has to win at least 7 percent to make it into the Duma, and parties cannot form electoral blocs. Along with last year's changes to the law on political parties -- which raised the minimum number of members to 50,000 and requires parties to have organizations in at least half of the country's regions -- this change will allow the authorities to disqualify almost any political party on completely legal grounds. It has also become nearly impossible to hold a referendum, unless the government supports it.

The institution of election observers has suffered a particular heavy blow. Now, only observers from the parties participating in an election are allowed to watch the polls. Independent observers are not allowed at all. The Kremlin learned its lesson from recent color revolutions and has tightened its control over elections at all levels, when it does not get rid of them altogether.

The so-called technical improvements the authorities are making to the electoral system fall into two categories. First, the Kremlin is making it easier to disqualify undesirable candidates and parties using biased courts and election commissions beholden to the center. An example of this is the increasingly strict approach to the signatures needed to register a candidate. This was one of the ways the authorities got rid of candidates in the past, but now it has become even easier.

Second, the Kremlin is trying to get rid of all ways that voters can have a direct effect on elections, whether it is voting with their feet and staying away from the polls or voting "against all." It is merely a matter of time before they eliminate the "against all" option, but even now, though it will still appear on ballots, it no longer functions as it once did.

There are three main myths surrounding election reform. The first is that this reform has a direct connection to the troublesome presidential election in 2008 and that reform will kick in immediately before. The next myth is that election reform will increase the Kremlin's control over political life and make democracy more manageable. Finally, the third myth is that the Kremlin is flexible and will adjust its plans as it goes, including possibly restoring certain democratic elements that had previously been eliminated.

Yet election reform will have an immediate effect, not only on gubernatorial and mayoral elections and on referendums, all of which have been practically outlawed, but also on the seemingly distant State Duma elections coming up in 2007. The elimination of single-mandate districts will radically shift the loyalties of current deputies who are hoping for re-election in these districts. They will not depend on their governor or constituents to get a Duma seat. They depend on the Kremlin. Refusing to allow smaller parties to form blocs is also a profoundly significant move. These blocs did very well against United Russia in regional legislative elections.

One would think that managed democracy had thus become even more manageable and even less democratic. The Kremlin seems to think that elections are only good for the opposition and that the fewer options available on the ballot, the better. Undoubtedly, democracy is not perfect, and direct election, as one of its most important institutions, is no exception. However, Winston Churchill's famous assertion that democracy was still better than anything humanity has managed to come up with applies not just to humanity in general, but also to the leaders in the Kremlin. They have done more than block all the possibilities for opposition members to take part in government decision-making. They have also plugged up all the outlets for the public to let off steam. The Kremlin is turning the political system into a pressure cooker. At the same time, the authorities continue to dismantle the last traces of the system that protects the public from the corrupt and incompetent. They keep turning up the heat underneath the cooker by instituting badly planned and badly executed reforms with unpredictable consequences.

The re-democratization myth springs from a recent statement by the president that it may be appropriate to adjust the system of appointing regional leaders by allowing the parties that won regional legislative elections to nominate candidates for governor. The president also called for broader rights for Duma factions.

These elements of so-called political liberalism that the president included in his annual state of the nation address are made utterly pointless by the election reform on one hand, and on the other, without election reform they would not have been brought up by Putin. In other words, first the Kremlin will build a fence keeping undesirables out of the Duma and regional legislatures, and only then will the government volunteer to expand the rights of those who are already on the inside.

This would all be rather amusing, if it were not so terribly dangerous.

The president's approval rating continues to fall, and this is the only basis of political stability at the moment. It is a matter of life and death that the authorities increase the flexibility and stability of the political system by decentralizing and re-federalizing it. The government needs to re-establish communication with the public and break the giant monolith of the power vertical into three flexibly connected "power horizontals" at the federal, regional and local levels.

The Kremlin also needs to open Russia's legislatures to the political opposition at all levels in order to send the energy of social protest flowing into parliamentary channels. It needs to shore up the democratic institutions that have been undermined by five years of the Putin regime. These institutions include the representative branch of government and the electoral process. Otherwise, the risk that the political system will collapse completely will become too great.

However, the Kremlin continues to roll mindlessly in precisely the opposite direction. Russia's leaders keep throwing up new barriers barring opposition parties from the Duma. They have turned the elections that remain into a farce.

Nikolai Petrov is scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.