Russia Overhauls Its Election Laws

Times Staff Writer

The Russian parliament on Wednesday approved a major election reform package billed as an attempt to strengthen political parties, but opponents complained that the measure would guarantee a lock on power for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

In a series of amendments to 13 election-related laws, the lower house gave its final approval to rules requiring parliamentary deputies to be elected from official party lists, blocking seats for parties that fail to attract 7% of the vote and prohibiting the formation of electoral blocs and factions.

The action follows a court decision last week that disbanded the National Bolshevik Party, one of the most strident opposition groups. The party had organized street demonstrations across Russia over the last several months to criticize the government of President Vladimir V. Putin.


Party leaders said it was the first time in 20 years that a political organization had been banned in Russia.

Government prosecutors had alleged there was evidence the group was plotting armed insurrection.

Opposition leaders said the election-law reform package, expected to win final, pro forma approval from the upper house of parliament by the end of the month, could disenfranchise millions of voters who would be unrepresented in the parliament.

“The new election law basically pushes the country back to a one-sided political system.... Putin wants to eradicate any possibility of the opposition to appeal to the people, and the elections are becoming a mere farce,” said Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the pro-democracy Union of Right Forces party.

Even the Communist Party, the successor to the institution that dominated Soviet politics for seven decades of one-party rule and the most powerful of the opposition parties, accused the government of attempting to sideline its opponents.

“It is a bad law intended to establish an authoritarian regime in the country,” said Oleg Kulikov, a member of the party’s central committee. “People will soon lose all interest in the elections. And we will wake up one day soon in a totalitarian state.”

Proponents of the reforms say Russia’s fledgling democracy needs a boost to its party system if it is to thrive. Though marginal blocs and parties might be weeded out, the new rules will encourage opposition parties to unite, marshal their forces and ultimately become a more powerful political force, they said.

“The goal is to continue the development of civil society in the Russian Federation, and of its key institution, that is, the political parties,” Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the constitutional legislation committee and a leader of the United Russia party, which controls about 300 seats in the 450-member lower house, said at a news conference after the vote.

Under the terms of the new legislation, he said, United Russia would have won up to 65 fewer seats in the 2003 parliamentary elections.

The next elections are scheduled for 2007.

Opposition leaders said the reforms would make it easier for the Kremlin to weed out candidates early in the process. And though the changes substantially raise the level of federal funding for election campaigns, they also raise the ceiling on campaign budgets, in what opposition parties called another advantage for United Russia.

“The new law raises the campaign budget to 2 billion rubles [about $70 million], which makes it even more difficult to compete with the United Russia machine,” Kulikov said. “We spent 90 million rubles [about $3 million] on the last campaign, and that was obviously our limit. And given the Kremlin control of the mass media, this new law, for all practical purposes, strips the institution of elections of any signs of a democratic process.”

Independent analysts said the laws had clear advantages for the Kremlin but would still provide representation in parliament for most Russians.

“Both the 7% barrier and the ban on electoral blocs serve the reform’s stated purpose: to strengthen the existing party system and weed out tiny, outsider movements created solely for PR purposes. But the question is, does the country’s party system need such ossification?” said Alexei Titov, an analyst with the Institute for Regional Policy.

“One possible consequence of these tougher rules could be that they block the path of a political force much needed by the country right now -- one that represents the interests of a significant portion of the population, of people who will otherwise be forced to take action using ‘nonparliamentary’ methods,” Titov said.

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko and Natalia I. Yefimova of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.