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On December 4, Russians will go to the polls to elect a new Duma, the lower house of parliament, and in March 2012 they will elect a new president.

President Dmitri Medvedev’s announcement in September 2011 that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would run for president in 2012 led many analysts to believe that his election is a foregone conclusion and that the party he leads, United Russia, will continue its dominance of the Duma, although recent opinion polls indicate a decline in public support for the party. The announcement ended nearly a year of speculation about the next phase of the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” in the presidency.

The announcement also threw into doubt whether much-needed political and economic reform will take place and cast a shadow on what is left of pluralism in Russian political life.

Throughout the past decade international monitoring bodies, including the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), have increasingly found fault with the fairness of Russian elections. Both groups found that the ruling party benefited from disproportionately favorable media coverage and abuse of government resources, and that political campaigns were not carried out under competitive conditions. Russian officials, including Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission, rejected these criticisms and accused the OSCE of a double standard in election monitoring.

What offices are being filled and for what terms?

Why do critics say the Duma does not represent political pluralism?

What about other checks and balances on the Kremlin’s power?

How can we expect the election to play out in the media?

Why do critics say the elections won’t be truly competitive?

What parties were not registered and why?

Who will monitor the election?

Q: What offices are being filled and for what terms?

A: The president who will be elected in March 2012 will serve a six-year term. The term was lengthened from four years in 2008. No more than two consecutive presidential terms are allowed, though there is no limit on the total number of terms.

The Russian parliament, or Federal Assembly, consists of two houses, the State Duma (lower house) and theFederation Council (upper house).  The State Duma has 450 seats, with members elected for five-year terms (increased in 2008 from four years). Voters select a party, and parties that receive at least 7 percent of the vote are granted seats based on their proportion of the vote, with two seats for parties that get between 5 and 7 percent. The Federation Council members are appointed by the President, 2 delegates for each of 83 regions, with total of 178 representatives. The Federation Counci lmembers are appointed by the President, 2 delegates for each of 83 regions, with total 178 reps.

Q: Why do critics say the Duma does not represent political pluralism?

A: Legislative amendments adopted in 2005 eliminating  voting for individual Duma candidates by district  and raising a party’s eligibility threshold from 5 to 7 percent significantly reduced opposition representation. The minimum number of parties to be represented in the Duma was reduced from four to two. The amendments also abolished the requirement for those who hold government offices to take a leave of absence when running for the Duma and allowed them to combine government service with management positions in parties.

In the last parliamentary elections, held in 2007, United Russia won 64 percent of the vote. That gave it a constitutional majority in the Duma, enabling it to change the constitution without seeking endorsement from the other parties. The Communist Partyand the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia which some believe to be controlled by the Kremlin, and social democratic Fair Russia also passed the threshold,with 11.6, 8.1, and 7.7 percent of the vote respectively.

Russia’s 7 percent threshold is the second-highest in Europe, after Turkey. (Parties that gain between 5 and 7 percent of the vote will get up to 2 seats.)In June, in what appeared to be a sudden move toward liberalization, President Medvedev introduced a bill in the State Duma to lower the threshold from 7 to the original 5 percent, as of the next election cycle. The bill was adopted but will have no impact on the December election.

Q: What about other checks and balances on the Kremlin’s power?

A: In the past decade, the checks and balances that did exist have been significantly reduced. Direct elections of governorswere abolishedin 2004, allegedly to reinforce federal power in the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attack in Beslan, and governors lost their collective veto over federal policies relevant to the regions. By May 2008, all regions were governed by United Russia supporters appointed by the Kremlin. Some local government elections also have been abolished.

In 2009 the Duma also "surrendered" its major leverage tool by passing amendments to the Budget Code that enabled the government to sequester the national budget without parliamentary consent.

Q: How can we expect the election to play out in the media?

A: Russian law requires equal access to the media for all parties registered for an election. But OSCE and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) observers have repeatedly found that candidates’ access to major television channels is not equal. Putin and United Russia, the report said, dominated mainstream media, especially television, in the 2003 and 2007 parliamentary elections.  The OSCE and PACE observers also found that in the 2003 vote there was “considerable pressure exerted on media outlets, especially in the regions, not to provide voters with a wider range of opinion.”

In the coming months the European Court of Human Rights is expected to deliver a judgment on allegations that Russia has interfered to prevent equal access for all parties to the media during election campaigns. The allegations were made in a complaint filed in 2005 by the Communist Party, Yabloko, and seven politicians. The complaint also alleged that the election results were falsified in hundreds of polling stations in the 2003 Duma elections.

Q: Why do critics say the elections won’t be truly competitive?

A: The problems with previous elections, including disproportionate access to media and abuse of government resources, give grounds for concern that the same problems will give the ruling party unfair advantage and undermine the competitiveness of the vote, critics say.

Seven parties are competing in the Duma election. In addition to the four parties currently represented in the Duma, Yabloko, Patriots of Russia, and Right Cause will participate.  

But the authorities refused to register several new political parties and candidates over the last year for reasons those who were denied registration contend are politically driven.

The local and municipal elections of 2010-2011 illustrated the concerns. According to Golos, a Russian nongovernmental group that analyzes elections, these elections were marred by, among other problems, massive abuse of government resources to ensure the victory of United Russia, arbitrary refusal to register parties and candidates, and limited media access for opposition candidates.

Media reports, citing opposition parties as their sources, said that local administrations in regions including Voronezh, Kemerovo, Tambov, Ryazan and Izhevsk have variously asked public employees to gather signatures for United Russia, instructed them to vote for the party, or offered public employees or pensioners various benefits if they help United Russia achieve a certain percent of the vote.

Media reports in April 2011 also said that a district head of administration sent a letter to several town administrators in the Altai territory “requesting” them to collect information for “organizing and holding elections to the State Duma in December 2011 and presidential elections in the Russian Federation in March 2012.”  The letter asked for details about leaders of local public organizations, directors of schools and health care units, managers of private and municipal enterprises and leaders of branches of local opposition political parties, as well as details on of the opposition’s activities during 2010.

Q: What parties were not registered and why?

A: In 2011Russian authorities have refused to register several opposition parties that would have contested the 2011 Duma vote.

In July, the Justice Ministry refused registration to theliberal democratic People's Freedom Party (Parnas), which was founded in December 2010 by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and opposition politicians Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov. The ministry alleged that Parnas’s party lists of supporters’ signatures included some people who were either under age or deceased. Party leaders contend that the decision was politically motivated.

The Justice Ministry also rejected in January 2011 registration materials filed by Other Russia, a leftist movement which is led by the writer Eduard Limonov, the former leader of the National Bolshevik group, citing alleged inaccuracies in its charter. In August the ministry, for the sixth time, rejected registration by Rot Front, a leftist workers’ group, saying it had failed to address alleged flaws in its founding documents. Among them was its emblem, a clenched fist in a star, which is also the emblem of the German anti-fascist movement. A party statement quoted the ministry as saying the emblem “could be interpreted as ‘extremist’ and ‘against the existing state system.’”

The ministry also refused in February 2011 to register Motherland Common Sense, another leftist group led by economist and former Kremlin-insider, Mikhail Delyagin, for a variety of reasons, including alleged flaws in its registration documents and not having the minimum number of members in enough regions. The party rejected claims that it lacked sufficient numbers of members in regional branches and said that the alleged flaws should not be considered violations of the law.

The failure to register opposition parties drew high-profile criticism.  In May 2011, 14 leading Russian intellectuals published an open statement condemning the authorities for “completely destroying the institution of democratic elections.” The European Union, Council of Europe, and the OSCE also expressed concern about the denial of registration to opposition parties.

In April 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the 2006 decision by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation quashing the registration of the liberal Republican Party of Russia, led by former Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov,  violated Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of assembly and association). In its ruling, the court held that the requirements for party registration under Russian law were not sufficiently precise and that the government’s interference with the party’s internal affairs was not lawful or necessary in a democratic society and exceeded any possible legitimate aim the government asserted it was pursuing.

Q: Who will monitor the election?

A: Russian law bars nongovernmental organizations from monitoring federal elections.  The only domestic observers allowed to operate at polling places and other election sites are official observers from the political parties taking part in the elections or specially accredited journalists.Thus, Russian groups involved in election monitoring, such as Golos, are restricted to monitoring campaigning by parties and candidates, organizing "telephone hotlines" to which people can call in complaints about irregularities, and informing the media about these reported violations.

Under new rules for monitoring elections set out in a May 2011 Central Electoral Commission resolution, only government and intergovernmental organizations can qualify as international monitoring bodies, andRussian citizens may not be members of international monitoring missions. Golos says that these rules are intended to strengthen government control over the election monitoring process. International groups that specialize in monitoring elections would be excluded. Furthermore, because the government can deny entry to the country for foreign members of international organizations at any time, barring monitoring groups from hiring Russians could mean that a group could effectively be prevented from carrying out its monitoring activities.

The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which has 18 years of experience monitoring elections throughout the region, will send 40 long-term observers and has requested that 160 short-term observers monitor election-day proceedings and the counting process for the Duma election. ODIHR was unable to monitor the 2007 election because foreign monitors encountered delays in obtaining visas and other obstacles. In February 2008, ODIHR announced it would not monitor the presidential election that year due to "severe restrictions” Russia had imposed. Russia denied that this was the case.

Monitors from the Council of Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States will also observe the Duma vote.

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