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Russia: New Election Law Makes Some Significant Changes

  • Floriana Fossato

With elections for the Russian State Duma due in December, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Floriana Fossato reports on the election law governing the poll.

Moscow, 1 July 1999 (RFE/RL) - A week ago (June 25), some five months before scheduled parliamentary elections, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed into a law a bill regulating the election of deputies to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. The present Duma had approved the bill a month ago, and the upper house, the Federation Council, did the same one week later.

The law leaves basic election rules intact. Half of the Duma's 450 seats will still be filled by deputies elected directly in single-ballot constituencies. The remaining seats will be split among political parties based on the percentage of the vote they receive.

But the regulations do contain some significant changes. Most notable among them is a new interpretation of the five percent of the vote that a party must attain in order to be represented in the Duma. In accordance with a late 1998 ruling by the Constitutional Court, the new law says that the total number of political groups reaching the five-percent threshold must now represent more than 50 percent of the voters. This calculation will be made only after the official vote count is made public.

If the parties that managed to attain five percent of the vote do not together add up to half the ballots cast, then political groups that have reached more than three percent of the vote will also make it into the Duma -- until the total percentage of voters represented in the chamber meets the required 50 percent.

According to Duma deputies who worked on the text, the law also represents an attempt to reduce election fraud by forbidding the use of so-called "dirty techniques" -- including the adoption by candidates and parties of names and symbols already used by other candidates and groups. The law also requires candidates to declare income, property and criminal convictions, if any. It stipulates that Russian citizens who are also citizens of another state -- the Russian constitution allows dual citizenship -- must make the same declaration. According to the new law, too, businesses that receive state monetary support are forbidden from making donations to party election funds.

The hope is that these and other provisions will make the parliamentary race more open and discourage potential candidates with criminal records. But many Russian politicians and journalists nevertheless predict that the campaigns for the December 19 parliamentary balloting, and for the presidential election due next June, will be marked by widespread legal violations.

The new law tries to strengthen safeguards against rigging the ballot in several ways. For example, it bans the practice of early voting, originally intended to bolster the electoral turn-out by attracting those who are unable to vote on election day. In the last few years, however, the practice has frequently led to allegations of fraud.

Another article of the new law allows individual candidates and parties to qualify for the race by paying a monetary deposit instead of collecting signatures, the common practice in past elections. The money will be returned only if the candidate or party makes it to the Duma, and the deposit is expected to come from each candidate's campaign funds. Ten percent of each candidate's campaign fund can be used as deposit. According to one of the drafters of the law, Viktor Sheinis, a respected legislator from the Yabloko party, the deposit represents a positive development. He spoke recently with RFE/RL:

"[In the past,] the practice of collecting signatures has proved to have serious deficiencies. It has become more and more a commercial and criminal affair. Now there is an alternative. Usually, with only few exclusions, signatures are collected and paid for. There are even firms ready to collect signatures on behalf of any candidate willing to pay."

Sheinis adds that, with so many less-than-serious candidates vying for parliamentary office, the monetary deposit is better than the collection of signatures for another important reason: The money, he says, will end up in needy state coffers, and will be used to cover the cost of the election.