Elections for the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, are approaching; the vote is scheduled for December. This election differs from previous ones, however, in that the deputies who are elected will remain in office for five years instead of four, as was the case previously. The constitutional majority currently held by the United Russia party, headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is also at stake. This majority has formally enabled the party of power to pass legislation without regard for the opinion of other deputies.
So the main question of the December elections is whether the opposition will be able to force United Russia to make room for them in the State Duma. The results of the vote could also affect the March 2012 presidential election, in which Russia’s head of state will for the first time be elected for a six-year term, rather than four-year term.
The race for parliamentary seats will be overseen by the Central Election Commission, a government agency authorized to monitor the legality of election campaigns and vote counting. The last Duma election, in 2007, was marred by a number of scandals when the opposition and prominent public figures complained of violations and falsifications in favor of United Russia. However, in every case, the Central Election Commission either ruled the violations minor or failed to find evidence supporting the allegations. As a result, international observers said the elections did not meet the “free and fair” standard. Some European observers refused to come altogether, citing unacceptable restrictions imposed by the commission on their activities in advance of the elections. Other observers, including those from CIS countries, found no violations and were satisfied with how the election took place, while the Commission accused the Europeans of bias and an attempt to influence the results of the vote.
In light of those events, the way the current campaign is conducted and the assessment it receives are of paramount importance. Commission head Vladimir Churov, stated in an interview: “Two factors determine the legitimacy of elections, the most important being the turnout.” At around 60 percent and constantly increasing, Russia’s turnout tends to be higher than in some European countries and the US. The second criterion, according to Churov, is “parliamentary representation, i.e. the percentage of votes cast by the total number of voters for candidates who get elected.”
The percentage in Russia is 92 percent, according to Churov, meaning that in 2007 only 8 percent of voters favored Duma candidates who didn’t get elected. “This is a very good European result,” he concluded. The Election Commission’s most complicated relationship is with observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which gave the harshest assessment of the 2007 elections. Churov singled out for criticism the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which strengthens and protects democratic institutions in OSCE countries, including through election monitoring. Churov said that the ODIHR’s mission was “politically motivated,” citing an analysis of the mission’s operations in 2010–2011 in Estonia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Latvia. He said that, “with regard to Latvia, Estonia, and Moldova, where the elections received positive assessments, the findings didn’t match the contents of the reports. That is, the conclusions were positive while the contents were negative. In Kazakhstan, it was the other way around.”