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Russia: Old Voting Habits Die Hard

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The recent parliamentary elections in Russia have given analysts plenty of material for studying Russians' voting habits. As RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports, many voters still seem to follow the old Soviet practice of turning out to vote for whoever is in power.

Moscow, 23 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the Soviet days, voting meant endorsing the boss under the rubrique that resistance only brings trouble and doesn't change anything anyway.

But today, with democratic elections a routine and frequent feature of Russian life, all that is supposed to have changed. Ballots offer real choices and parties with very different platforms rise and fall with the voters' favor.

Or so it seems until one looks more closely at the parliamentary election just past.

In last Sunday's elections, one quarter of all voters supported the new party Unity, whose only clear identity is that it backs the prime minister. The party -- formed just weeks before the election -- offered no program during the campaign other than vague promises to save Russia through the strong hand of Vladimir Putin.

Other voters turned to the Union of Right Forces, which has a pro-market platform and was expected to barely clear the five percent threshold for entering parliament. But the Union surprised many by declaring at the last minute that it, too, supports the prime minister -- a move that seems to be behind its relatively strong showing.

That surge in votes was all the more surprising because the Union's key figures include former privatization chief Anatoly Chubais, and former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who was fired during the August 1998 ruble collapse. Both are widely regarded by Russian voters with mistrust or even hatred for their supposed mistakes and corruption.

And still another quarter of voters continued supporting the Communist Party -- filing out to vote as they always have, perhaps from habit as much as conviction.

Lev Ubozhko is an ex-Soviet dissident who was punished for several years with stays in psychiatric wards. In the parliamentary election, he headed the list of a minor party with a platform denouncing what he calls the "Sovietism" of Russian state structures. He tells RFE/RL that he believes voting habits have not really changed that much since the collapse of communism.

"Under our [former] so-called social-democracy [they elected] without pluralism the regional party secretary, [they] applauded, and cast their ballots with 99 percent [approval]. The difference now is [only] that you have ten to fifteen candidates. But if there's an order from the top, from the government, from the governor, that they want their man [to be elected] then the whole administration will salute [and obey]. [Submitting to] this principle many go [to vote] without thinking. And then [there is] the older active generation that under the communists were executors. They were trained [to execute] forced to this, and can't live any other way. And the youth is very passive"

Other commentators agree. Speaking on a talk-show on Russian commercial television NTV on election night, political scientist Igor Bunin said that the phenomenon is not surprising. As he put it, "a nation of subjects does not turn overnight into a nation of citizens."

Bunin believes that Putin's electorate can be divided into two groups. He says that one is composed of people who voted for the party of the government. In 1995 they were the ones to give the former party of power "Our Home is Russia" (NDR) over ten percent of votes -- compared to one percent this year.

But Bunin says Putin also attracts another group. They are voters who in the past voted for strong-image politicians such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Alexander Lebed.

Another analyst, Mikhail Krasnov, Boris Yeltsin's former consultant for legal affairs, warned this week on Ekho Moskvy radio that the ease with which Unity swept into the Duma should be worrisome. He said the way Unity was boosted by Putin's and the state machine's support shows that, providing they were wooed in a well organized campaign, many Russians would vote even for the harshest regime.

But not all observers are convinced that Russians still reflexively vote for the party of power. Eduard Brunner, an election observer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), takes heart from that fact that the majority of voters in Sunday's poll did n-o-t vote pro-Kremlin.

Speaking to RFE/RL, he said that although manipulation and discipline were probably factors in the poll, a majority of Russians seem to have made a free choice. He cites the landslide re-election of Yuri Luzhkov, a Kremlin rival, to the post of Moscow mayor as evidence. Brunner:

"There are people who didn't let themselves be swayed by what they saw on television [in favor of the party of power]. Proof is [seen in the fact] that Luzhkov got elected with more than 75 percent (actually around 71 per cent) of the votes.

And how one sees the way Russians vote seems to have a lot to do with whether one talks to a winner or loser in the race.

What critics call passivity inherited from the past has been hailed by the Russian government and its supporters as the electorate's search for stability and consolidation.

Igor Shabdurasulov, deputy head of the presidential administration, lauds what he calls Russian voters' sense of responsibility in ushering in a more manageable and balanced Duma.