20 years under Putin: a timeline

The electoral reform announced by Vladimir Putin – the switch from a proportional system of parliamentary elections to a mixed plurality-proportional one – has become one of the main topics of the current political season. This change heralds a reassessment of Putin’s style of political control. Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies and an IMR advisor, considers the president’s motives.




It is difficult today to understand the logic of the Kremlin’s 2004 decision to replace the mixed plurality-proportional system of electing the State Duma with the purely proportional one. The logic was short-term, which meant that only the present moment was important, and that “tomorrow will be tomorrow.” The “manual control” over political processes excludes any planning by definition, and is based upon reactive decision-making, the influence of instantaneous factors, and the weakness of laws and institutions. The political will “here and now” has been governing Russia for the last 13 years. The regime’s reasons for electoral reform in 2004 and 2012 were entirely different.

Between 1993 and 2003, all Russian parliaments were elected under a mixed system: 225 deputies from single-member districts (the winner had to receive a plurality of the votes), and another 225 from nationwide party lists. A switch to the first-past-the-post system had been discussed in the Kremlin for many years, particularly in 1999 and 2000. One of the main characteristics of this system, formulated by French scientist Maurice Duverger, is a transition from a multiparty system to a two-party one: it brings down the number of parties and contributes to their consolidation. Political science specifies two reasons for this. According to political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, “only those parties whose candidates come first in their districts have chances of success (…), so like-minded political groups are motivated to join forces and support the strongest candidates to avoid becoming marginalized.” Moreover, voters who wish not only to support a political force, but to actually influence the election results, will vote for the candidate with greater chances of winning in their district (the so-called “tactical” voting).

In a presidential system the need for a smaller number of parties loses its relevance, while the demand for a wider representation of political interests increases.

In Russia, supporters of the first-past-the-post system, following their Western colleagues, have treated the argument of its stability as an axiom. In 1999, several pro-Kremlin experts advocated the transition to first-past-the-post on the grounds of its contribution to the political stabilization of the country. Their opponents pointed out that whereas in a parliamentary system of government, larger and more consolidated parties are more important than representativeness, in a presidential or a mixed presidential-parliamentary system the need for a smaller number of parties loses its relevance, while the demand for a wider representation of political interests increases.

In reality, the Kremlin in 1999 was gripped by a severe political and moral crisis. Boris Yeltsin’ successors came and went; the popularity of the opposition Fatherland–All Russia (FAR) bloc was growing; the elites were split; separatist sentiments were strengthening. Most importantly, the executive had no control over Parliament and was forced to bargain with the State Duma’s Communist majority. In the 1990s, the central government could not even approach the measure of control over the legislature that Putin has today. In this context, the desire for the first-past-the-post system was quite understandable: it had a simple goal of diminishing Communist influence in the Duma. In the 1995 election, the Communists won 99 of the 225 seats (44 percent) under the proportional system, but only 58 of the 225 seats (26 percent) in the individual districts.

In 1999, however, this matter ended in talk. Action was prevented by either the Kremlin’s uncertainty about being able to push this reform through Parliament, or by the constant instability of the executive branch and the uncertainty about a presidential successor, which was only resolved in August 1999. Vladimir Putin, who was elevated from the post of Federal Security Service director to the premiership, was not worried about electoral reform, focusing instead on party-building. The pro-Putin Unity bloc succeeded in the December 1999 parliamentary election, after which the presidential administration formed a coalition from two party caucuses (Unity and FAR, which flopped over to the government’s side), and two groups of deputies (Regions of Russia and People’s Deputy). As a result, in 2000 Putin became the first Russian president with a loyal parliamentary majority.

However, he used this majority (formed again in the 2003 election) not to introduce the first-past-the-post system, but to make a transition to the fully proportional one, which surprised many experts. The terrorist attack in Beslan came as a shock to the country, and the regime used the growing demand for a strong state to pass a whole package of political counter-reforms. Direct gubernatorial elections were abolished, and the law on political parties was made more restrictive. Soon after came the “espionage hysteria,” and a new law strengthened control over nongovernmental organizations. 2004 was a turning-point for Russia: the Kremlin used the terrorist attack to make a sharp change in the system of political management, “tightening the screws” faster and more methodically.

So why did Putin need a proportional system in 2004? In such a system, the number of seats in the legislature for every participating group is determined by the percentage of votes received by it. This system is considered fairer and more democratic, because it more or less correctly reflects the different political interests, and creates favorable conditions for a pluralist and multi-party structure of society.  According to the “Duverger law,” the proportional system encourages the existence of smaller parties.

Yet this theory (confirmed by practice in other countries) did not work in Russia. Along with introducing a proportional system, Putin toughened the law on parties, which resulted in the reduction of the number of registered political parties in Russia from more than fifty to seven. Only four of these stood a chance of getting into the State Duma, with three (United Russia, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party) being entirely loyal to the regime, and the fourth (the Communist Party) ready to negotiate. In 2003, when United Russia took 67 percent of parliamentary seats, and the Communists lagged far behind with 10 percent, Putin realized that a strong ruling party is the key to a controlled party system with one dominant player, and to a loyal Parliament. In 2007 and 2011, the proportional system fulfilled the Kremlin’s aims: the regime’s high poll numbers ensured a stable situation for the ruling party, and the loyalty of the Duma majority.


The last time the State Duma was elected under a mixed system was in December 2003. United Russia's list received 37 percent of the vote, but thanks to the deputies elected from the individual districts, the ruling party occupied 67 percent of parliamentary seats.


Mass protests against election fraud in December 2011 spoiled everything. The proportional system is only useful to an authoritarian regime if the ruling party gets more than 50 percent of the vote, and when it has no strong competitors. In December 2011, the Kremlin became scared that conditions would not be the same at the time of the next Duma elections in five years, and that changes in society would make the proportional system work against the regime. The brand of “the party of crooks and thieves” has become so popular that it poses a real threat to United Russia, which already finds itself in a tricky situation, retaining its majority to a large extent thanks to use of administrative resources and a lack of real alternative. In such conditions, Putin, according to Russian democrats, was forced to “outplay himself.” “It was Putin who destroyed this electoral system, it was Putin who caused large-scale fraud, unmotivated closing of political parties, and the discrediting of the whole electoral system, as well as the current State Duma,” asserted Vladimir Ruzhkov, co-chairman of the Republican Party of Russia–People's Freedom Party. The regime has fallen victim to political circumstances, which yet again points to an absence of a coherent strategy.

Dmitri Medvedev is worth mentioning here. Having chosen Medvedev as his successor, Putin intended to kill two birds with one stone, finding both a reliable locum tenens, and an opportunity to play a “democrat.” But Medvedev took his new role too personally. It is a common problem with halfway solutions. Putin was afraid to change the Constitution and run for a third consecutive term (he is horrified of becoming a pariah on the world stage), but at the same time could not choose a complete puppet. A puppet is dangerous because it is yours today, but may become someone else’s tomorrow. He needed a partner, who would play his role sincerely, and who would step aside when asked.

This situation forced Putin to give Medvedev some room for maneuver for devising his own “Medvedev course.” And Medvedev used this opportunity. A political “thaw” ensued, which to a large extent created the basis for the December 2011 protests. During Medvedev’s four-year presidency, society had been getting used to being the regime’s partner, to the existence of a dialogue, and to the attempts of finding some mutual understanding. Opposition journalists and human rights activists were being invited to the Kremlin, and opposition politicians, to the Duma sessions. Putin was being criticized. He stopped being a “Teflon,” an untouchable and sacred figure. With his careful steps, Medvedev created a totally different atmosphere in the country. This is why many considered it as nightfall after a sunny day when Putin declared his return to the Kremlin in such a rude and peremptory manner.

Electoral laws will keep on changing according to the Kremlin’s political interests, and any reform will be aimed at increasing the executive’s control over Parliament.

Dmitri Medvedev talked about returning to a mixed electoral system in 2010, and even charged his administration with looking into such a possibility. But this topic, as many of his other initiatives, met with a slight mishap. In his last state-of-the-nation address in December 2011, he said something strange and incomprehensible about “proportional representation in 225 districts”, which suggested a binomial electoral system, also known by experts as the “Pinochet system”. Arkady Dvorkovich, Medvedev’s closest associate, announced the return to the mixed electoral system that had existed until 2004. In the end, the reform turned into a zilch: the existing proportional system was preserved, but parties were forced to divide their candidate lists into 225 groups. In other words, at the beginning of 2012 Putin blocked the reform, which in the end he decided to introduce himself. Not much of a long-term or well-calculated strategy.

Under the present circumstances, the mixed system will function along the lines of 1999 and 2003. The difference is the diminished role of the ruling party: the Kremlin is preparing for United Russia’s brand being completely discredited, and for the impending necessity of its rebranding. A pro-regime bloc will likely be formed: the authorities are planning to reinstate this option in parliamentary elections. As of the beginning of 2013, 54 political parties have been registered in Russia. Having decided to liberalize the party law, the Kremlin could not avoid electoral reform. The first-past-the-post component becomes an additional insurance: if the 2011 election were held under a mixed system, the ruling party would probably have won in an overwhelming majority of districts, and the final results would have allowed United Russia to retain two-thirds of the Duma seats.

It is important to realize, however, that Putin’s initiative is so far only a “pig in a poke.” In his state-of-the-nation address in December, Vladimir Putin said that “many political parties and experts suggest returning to the mixed system for State Duma elections, with party lists and single-member districts, which of course still have to be defined.” The balance between proportional and first-past-the-post components, and the threshold for party lists are as yet unknown. Only one thing is clear: electoral laws in Russia will keep on changing according to the Kremlin’s political interests, and any reform will be aimed at increasing the executive’s control over Parliament.