Putin's Potemkin election

Russia's parliamentary elections will essentially return the country to a one-party state.

In September, President Vladimir Putin said he was committed to a "multiparty system" and "normal political parties" in Russia. In reality, Russia is becoming a one-party state. One need only examine the coming parliamentary elections to see how this tragedy is happening.

Sure, Mr. Putin can point to 11 parties running in the Dec. 2 elections for the Duma. That's multiparty. But, on closer inspection, it's not a normal system for a functioning parliamentary democracy.

Today's 450-seat Duma is largely a rubber stamp for Putin, but at least it has about 100 seats occupied by lesser parties and independents. That feature will disappear with this election.

Only two parties are expected to win on Sunday: United Russia, which backs Putin and which already has a two-thirds majority in the Duma; and the much smaller Communist Party of Russia, belligerent in voice toward the Kremlin but acquiescent in passing its legislation.

Due to a change in election law, parties must capture at least 7 percent of the national vote to gain seats, up from 5 percent (a standard threshold in countries such as Germany). The new hurdle is too high for most of the 11 parties.

And in 2004, Putin decided to switch to proportional voting, in which seats are apportioned by the percent of the vote each party wins. The seats are then distributed according to names on party lists. This eliminates a deputy's direct responsibility to a constituency, and also knocks out independents.

In Putin's Russia, it's also harder to run for election. Parties must register, of course, but in order to do so, they must have 50,000 members (it used to be 10,000), and gather 200,000 signatures to actually run. This has shut out, for instance, the new opposition party, Other Russia, led by former chess champion, Garry Kasparov.

Meanwhile, Russia is slashing the number of international election observers. A mainstay among such monitors, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), recently canceled plans to observe the Duma elections, citing "unprecedented restrictions."

Besides fewer monitors and Putin's changes in election law there are "unofficial" changes. Opposition candidates are now shut out from television. "He who is not on TV might as well be dead," wrote Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent in the Duma, in a Monitor opinion piece in May.

Also unofficially, the ads of opposition parties are pulled down, their leaflets confiscated, and members beaten (last week, a leading candidate in the opposition Yabloko Party was mysteriously killed).

The irony is, Putin does not need to return to a one-party state. His approval ratings reach to the moon (higher than 80 percent), based on political stability and an petroleum-rich economy. His term as president expires in March, but his popularity is such that his influence would be unquestioned – regardless of whatever tricks he may try to retain official power.

His calculations are for the long term and based on false assumptions about the ability of Russians to elect wise government. But at some point, corruption, autocracy, and the inefficiency of state-owned industry will catch up with Russia. Then, its citizens will look for other ways to have their voices heard.

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