Since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power over two years ago, he has done much to carry out his promise of strengthening centralized power. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party is now proposing to further consolidate the country's political forces by changing parliamentary election rules. It wants to raise the minimum barrier from 5 to 7 percent for blocs of political parties to make it into the Duma. The centrists say that would help create a system of two or three main parties necessary for an efficient legislative process. But a chorus of criticism -- not least from those parties that would be excluded under the new barrier -- says Unified Russia wants to waylay the democratic process for its own purposes.
Moscow, 18 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Things are good for the Unified Russia party. The pro-Kremlin alliance of four centrist groups controls around 240 of the Duma's 450 seats, allowing it to dominate parliament and ram through many of the government's bills.
The party now wants to make things even better. It proposes to cut down on the number of small parties it says only slow things down by criticizing the government instead of helping craft legislation.
Members of the centrist group think Russia needs no more than two or three parties to work at maximum efficiency. To that end, they propose changing the country's electoral law to make it more difficult for small parties to be elected to the Duma.
"Experience has shown parties breed like cockroaches," Oleg Morozov, head of the Russia's Regions Duma faction, said in remarks reported by "Izvestiya" newspaper. Russia's Regions is a member of Unified Russia.
Critics, however, say the measure is actually aimed at muzzling dissent. Sergei Ivanenko, first deputy head of the liberal Yabloko party -- which squeaked into the Duma with 5.93 percent in elections in 1999 -- says the move is "90 percent" directed at showing its usefulness to the Kremlin: "This is a political move, a public relations action directed at demonstrating Unified Russia's significance to our political system."
Unified Russia's proposals conform to President Vladimir Putin's stated aim of strengthening centralized authority. Since coming to office, the president has raised the hurdles that organizations need to clear to become political parties and participate in elections.
Putin, who says he wants to ensure parties have broad national support, has moved to limit regional power bases by cutting back the authority of the country's governors and representatives in the Federation Council upper house of parliament.
Now, Unified Russia's likely proposal -- expected next week -- would make it even more difficult for small parties with narrow support bases. It recommends raising the barrier from 5 percent to 7 percent for landing seats in the Duma for blocs of parties running together in parliamentary elections.
Unified Russia started by recently floating a proposal to raise the barrier to 12.5 percent for all parties, a position observers say was meant to set a bargaining platform. Only Unified Russia and the Communist Party would likely be able to pass that level.
The Kremlin's reaction came from its administration deputy chief, Vladislav Surkov, who said "Unified Russia's radical proposals are simply unacceptable."
Surkov, however, indicated that raising the barrier to 7 percent was not only acceptable, but would actually help strengthen political parties in the Duma. But he added the measure should only be passed ahead of elections in 2007.
Central Elections Commission chief Aleksandr Veshnyakov has also said 7 percent might be an acceptable level.
Unified Russia says it now plans to submit a bill proposing the 7 percent barrier for consideration in the Duma late next week.
There is a chance it may take effect before Duma elections in December 2003, a possibility that irks critics protesting what they say is one party's attempt to change the rules to suit itself.
Most countries like Russia with systems of proportional representation set the barrier for entry to parliament at around 5 percent. Turkey's limit is the highest at 10 percent.
Unified Russia members cite the two-party system in the United States as a goal. But political analysts point out that the United States is qualitatively different because it has a majority electoral system instead of proportional representation -- from which the population votes for parties that draw up hierarchical lists of representatives. In Russia, half the Duma's deputies are elected from lists; the other half are elected from single-seat districts.
Boris Makarenko, a political analyst at Moscow's Center for Political Technologies, says Russia's political system is in fact unsuited to a two-party system: "The proportional-representation system never in the world produced two-party parliaments or two-party political systems. Proportional representation is about taking into account minority votes. If you want a two-party system, you have to introduce a first-past-the-post majoritarian system, like in most Anglo-Saxon countries or their former colonies, such as India."
Unified Russia's proposal is still being discussed in committee, and the bill the party says it will submit to the Duma next week will likely not concern individual parties, but electoral blocs of parties running together.
Ivanenko says that further watering-down makes the proposals senseless: "Not one of the political parties represented in the Duma is planning to run in the next elections in any kind of bloc. That's why the topic is an academic one and will have no practical meaning, at least in these elections."
While Yabloko denounces any such measure, members of the Duma's other main liberal party, the free-market Union of Rightist Forces, or SPS, has cautiously backed the proposal. Some say the party may be motivated by a desire to force a union with the social-democratic Yabloko.
The Communists, who have the most number of Duma seats of any party, have largely remained indifferent, saying a higher barrier would actually create further difficulties for the Kremlin by focusing opposition around themselves and paring down what is now a relative cacophony of criticism.
This is not Unified Russia's first such initiative. The party has also pushed for a new law that would require a minimum turnout in regional elections or else have the president appoint governors and other officials.
Yurii Korgunyuk, director of Moscow's Indem political research group, says that Unified Russia is trying to alter the political ground rules for its own advantage by forcing voters for SPS, Yabloko, and other small parties to cast their ballots for Unified Russia instead: "Where there are two-party systems, people often don't vote for parties closest to their views because they're afraid their candidate won't collect enough percentage and the votes will be wasted, and therefore they vote for another party. That's pretty much the same psychological expectation here."
Makarenko agrees, saying Unified Russia's proposals reflect trouble within the party: "[Unified Russia] has problems in its party-building. It's obviously going badly. Under the Russian political tradition, if something goes badly for you, change the rules of the game if you can. Make things difficult for your opponents."
Makarenko says the most obvious victims of the proposal would be parties with ratings just above 5 percent. Those include liberals Yabloko and SPS as well as two parties behind the bill: the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party and the People's Deputy group, a member of Unified Russia.
Each percentage point raised is a real threat to those parties, representing 1 million voters counting the total number of voters, or around 600,000 considering the average voter turnout.
Russia is the world's most populous country with a system of proportional representation.
The Justice Ministry has registered around 30 parties since Putin's new law went into effect last year.
Like Yabloko member Ivanenko, Makarenko says Unified Russia's proposal is a tool to exercise influence among smaller parties, but adds that he doubts the measure will be passed in consideration this time around.