As the widely-followed American presidential primaries wound down, Russia was quietly experimenting with its own version of political primaries.[i] For the first time in Russian history, a political party, United Russia, used a nationwide primary election to select its parliamentary candidates, who will contest the 450 seats in the lower house, the State Duma, on September 18. Designed to steal a march on opposing parties and to shed United Russia’s reputation as what critics called a “party of swindlers and thieves, the party primary, which took place on May 22, followed rules that sought put a fresh face on an organization needing rebranding amid a severe financial crisis and popular disillusionment with parties and parliament. The party’s chair, Sergei Neverov, boldly asserted that United Russia “had made a definitive choice between party bureaucracy and direct democracy.”[ii]
Putin’s “political technologists” produced an imaginative set of internal electoral rules for the country’s hegemonic party that have the potential to strengthen United Russia as an institution as well as to legitimate its claim to power in the eyes of some voters. Among the novelties are:
— an open primary, which allows all Russian voters to participate in the selection of United Russia’s candidates for the September election. Earlier experiments with party primaries in Russia had a limited selectorate.
–“approval voting,” which permits voters to select as many candidates as they wish from the field.
—no serious “filters” to limit nominations on the primary ballots. Not only do candidates self-nominate, but one need not be a member of the United Russia party to run. All candidates must pledge, however, not to run as an independent or on another party’s ticket in September if they participate in the United Russia primary and lose. In addition, as part of the Kremlin’s stated goal of “de-oligarchizing” the parliament, candidates may not have assets overseas. Given the widespread use of family members and shell companies to shield wealth abroad, it will be difficult, of course, to police this restriction.[iii]
–the reintroduction of single-member districts, which had been eliminated after the 2003 parliamentary election. Thus, voters in the United Russia primary received two ballots, one for the single-member district race in their area (225 districts in all) and the other for the party list in their territory (with 35-40 territorially-based party lists in all). Restoring the idea of local representation through single-member district voting was one element of a broader campaign to reframe the electoral system, which in Putin’s words should appear “more transparent and closer to the people.”[iv]
United Russia officials declared the May 22 primary to be a success, and on several levels it was. Although turnout nationwide was just under 10 percent, that figure represented almost a third of the United Russia vote total received during the last parliamentary election, when it won a majority of the seats in the Duma.[v] Given the relatively low visibility and stakes of May’s primary contest and the greater difficulty in many areas of getting to the polls (there were far fewer voting precincts than in the general election), the turnout did not disappoint party leaders or neutral observers. Just as during general elections, the participation rate of Russian voters differed widely by region of the country during the May primary, with ethnic republics like Tatarstan and Chechnya posting turnout rates of 15 percent, while in the northern Russian region of Arkhangel’sk, less than 3 percent of the electorate came to the polls.[vi] There were reports of voting infractions and intimidation in some regions, including ballot stuffing in Moscow and the storming of an electoral precinct in Russia’s Far East. Overall, however, the primary election took place with relatively few irregularities by Russian standards, which supported the regime’s narrative of a political reset in this electoral cycle.
United Russia’s May primary appeared to bring numerous benefits to the party, including:
–the ability to claim that it was the only party in Russia willing to give ordinary citizens a say in the selection of parliamentary candidates,[vii] and that their participation resulted in the removal or “de-selection” of incumbent United Russia deputies. Although most sitting members of parliament from United Russia who contested the primaries maintained their eligibility for their seats, a significant minority did not.[viii]
–the recruitment of not only a popular but tested slate of candidates for the September elections. The primary rules required that all candidates engage in at least two public debates, and this experience, plus the need to develop a professional campaign team and a convincing message capable of mobilizing the electorate, ensured that all United Russia candidates had a dry run in advance of the general election. This dress rehearsal presents a special advantage in this electoral cycle because single-member district contests will be held for the first time in 13 years. In addition, of course, the party primary in May exposed voters to the platform and candidates of United Russia well before the start of the regular parliamentary campaign.
–the opportunity to attract new blood into the party.[ix] By opening places on the ballot to all comers, United Russia encouraged those with political ambitions but no party home to run in United Russia’s primary.[x] If the candidates win, they join the ranks of the party; if they lose, they are prevented from contesting the forthcoming general election for the opposition. Introducing an open nomination system in primaries for the country’s party of power is a logical initiative for a regime that is obsessed with developing a “cadres reserve”–a pool of eligible replacement personnel–in politics and government. In Putin’s words, the primaries should become a “tool for finding promising, interesting people, and these are the people we need.”[xi]
Having set out the advantages of the party primary for Putin and United Russia, which serves as the president’s loyal base in the parliament and country, it is important to recognize the new challenges that open primaries present for the regime. These include:
–a potential backlash from political elites who were defeated in the May voting as well as those who “won” in May but whose candidacies will not be confirmed by the party Congress, which meets later this month. Although it appears that the leadership of United Russia is likely to accept the results overall, especially those in the single-member district races, the final formation of regional party lists could exclude persons who enjoyed success in the May primary.
–“approval voting” may exacerbate the trend toward a reliance on celebrity politicians from the world of sports and culture as a core group of pro-regime elites. This voting system also threatens to produce candidates who may have support among a vocal minority but who do not enjoy broader popularity among their constituents. One successful candidate in a single-member district race won with only 19 percent of the vote.
–a dilution of party values due to the influx of persons with no previous ties to United Russia. Of course, given that the core values of United Russia are to gain, wield, and maintain power, and that non-party nominees are attracted to a party with such values, the threat posed by new blood is probably limited, but at a minimum it has the potential to disrupt existing patronage and protection networks.
The most serious long-term dangers to the current regime come from the possibility that party primaries could destabilize or overturn consolidated elites at the regional level or that regional elites could use the primary system to increase their influence in national politics. The return to single-member districts will decouple half of the deputies’ mandates from the party bureaucracy and therefore make it more difficult for the center to manage members of parliament. It may also allow some governors to gain control over deputies from their region, which would re-introduce some of the center-periphery bargaining that characterized Russian politics in the period up to 2003. To prevent that from happening, the president administration, through its eight federal district offices and other institutions, will need to ensure that regional parliamentary “delegations” limit their dependence on governors. It is instructive in this regard that United Russia went out of its way to warn governors against using their administrative resources to assist their political allies during the primary campaign. The question is whether the Kremlin is really willing to continue that ban in the general election, when United Russia will presumably need such tools traditionally employed by governors in order to guarantee a victory.
[i] Russians even adopted the English term “praimeriz” in preference to the Russian “predvaritel’noe golosovanie” [preliminary voting].
[ii] Sergei Konovalov, “Praimeriz kak forma priamoi demokratii,” Nezasimaia gazeta, May 25, 2016. http://www.ng.ru/politics/2016-05-25/3_kartblansh.html
[iii] Candidates with criminal convictions are also ineligible to run in the United Russia primary.
[v] Contrary to assertions in some Russian publications, turnout in congressional primaries during midterm elections in the United States was somewhat higher than this, about 15 percent, though aggregating state-by-state data to reach a national turnout average is problematic because of the different rules in each state and the number of races on the ballot at the same time as the party primary. Given that the United Russia primary did not occur along with other political races, the 9.5 percent turnout is not out of line with what one might find in the United States.
[vi] For turnout rates by region, see the results on the United Russia website at pr.er.ru. There was also wide variation by region in the “mobilization index” of UR voters, that is the percentage of voters in the May primary compared to those voting for UR in the 2011 parliamentary election. The mean was about one-third, with the range stretching from 13 percent in the Komi Republic to 63 percent in Murmansk oblast. “Itogi predvaritel’nogo golosovaniia ‘Edninoi Rossii’, situatsiia v partelite, intrigi i stsenarii kampanii-2016,” United Russia website, June 8, 2016. https://er.ru/news/143000/
[vii] Other parties either rejected the idea of primary elections, conducted them with a limited selectorate, or had to abandon them because of technical problems.
[viii] Of the 109 incumbent State Duma deputies contesting single-member districts, 27 failed to win; 22 lost in party list contests.
[ix] A total of 2781 persons contested the UR primaries, 1171 for the single-member districts and 2107 for places on the regional party lists. “10 voprosov o sisteme praimeriz v Rossii,” TASS . A few prominent candidates ran for both SMD and party list spots simultaneously.
[x] Many non-party candidates were members of the All-Russian Popular Front (ONF), a Putin support group masquerading as a mass movement.
[xi] “‘Edinaia Rossiia’ provodit predvaritel’noe golosovanie za kandidatov na vybory v Gosdumu,” Vzgliad, May 22, 2016. http://www.vz.ru/news/2016/5/22/811949.html Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev claimed that those non-party candidates who lost will be placed in United Russia’s cadres reserve. Ivan Rodin, “Edinorossy repetitsiiu vyborov schitaiut uspeshnoi,” Nezavismaia gazeta, May 23, 2016. http://www.ng.ru/politics/2016-05-23/1_edro.html