Grigorii Golosov: Democracy without Democrats in Russia

Democracy without Democrats: The Prospects for Parliamentarism 
Under a well-functioning system, even the current parties can be a good defense against autocrats
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
August 25, 2017

As hopes for Russia’s becoming a democratic country in the foreseeable future fade, the question of the institutional structure of a future Russian democracy is overstated. Even the best-intentioned commentators often argue that none of the conventional mechanisms fit Russia. A presidential system would not do, because it concentrates too much power in the hands of one man and his retinue, leading directly to dictatorship. That sounds plausible. However, as Alexander Morozov recently wrote on Facebook, a parliamentary system would not do, either. If I understood him correctly, his main argument was that the roster of political players would be maintained under this system, and so “the same fools from the current parliamentary parties would remain in power.” That also sounds plausible.

One of the problems with such dramatic assessments is obvious. They imply that Russia’s current political trajectory is unique, and the systems of governance tested and proven workable in other countries would thus never function in Russia. Theoretically, we cannot exclude such options. North Korea, for example, has now generated a political configuration I am willing to acknowledge unique both in terms of structure and possible consequences. However, there is no mystery as to the miserable country’s future. If it is destined to rid itself of the Kim dynasty, it will have to associate itself with South Korea under conditions acceptable to China and the US. It would be pointless to go into the details, but the overall picture is quite clear.

Russia is a different story. I do not see anything unique about Russia’s circumstances. By world standards, we have a quite ordinary authoritarian regime. All the signs point to the fact the regime is in the upward phase of its trajectory, that is, in the process of consolidating. We are thus unable to say anything definite about how it will cease to exist.  Hardcore opposition politicians (of whom, I think, Alexei Navalny is the last man standing) have it simpler than analysts. Politicians simply fight the good fight, using any means available. They do not need to gaze far into the future. But analysts do need to see into the future and would like to see in the future. They are not very good at it, however.

Hence the cognitive error they make, an error best described by the classic metaphor of the black box. There is an initial state and a set of possible outcomes, but the box conceals its interior from us, what is in the middle. Since the initial state makes optimism groundless and has not even fully manifested itself, an optimistic assessment of possible outcomes seems implausible. It is impossible to avoid the error, but we can minimize its consequences if we ignore what might be inside the black box, that is, if we temporarily forget about “progressive” generals, lizards from the planet Niburu, and even about Navalny and other possible drivers of democratization in Russia. Instead, we should focus on democracy’s structural features.

Yet, the first hypothesis we have to take into account is that liberal democracy, regardless of its institutional shape, entrusts the decision of who holds power to a majority of voters. Hence, if the absolute majority of votes in an election are conferred on a potential dictator or his party, the return to authoritarianism is a question of time, and it matters not a whit whether the potential dictator holds the office of president or prime minister. Recent events in Turkey vividly bear this out. The country’s parliamentary system, which had existed for several decades, was unable to withstand a head-on collision with a single-party monopoly. The fact that Erdogan did indeed become the full-fledged president merely capped off the transformation, but the process itself took place within the parliamentary system.

The Turkish Parliament in Ankara. Photo courtesy of Umit Bektas/Reuters

It follows that the main danger to a democracy under a parliamentary system consists not in the absence of succession among parliamentary elites, but in the establishment and long-term reproduction of a political monopoly in parliament. The experience of many countries, from Eastern Europe, where it was neutralized by the project of joining the EU, to Africa, where it has not been neutralized and has caused efforts at democratization to fail on several occasions, testifies to the fact that the danger is quite real. It is natural, after all, that at the first elections after democratization people vote en masse for the most persuasive opposition party and hand it a majority in parliament. The country’s main democrat then becomes a dictator, since there is no institutional counterbalance to prevent it.

This should make us look at the prospects of the current parliamentary parties after democratization.  One of them, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), is bound to survive, while two others, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the so-called party of power, United Russia, have good chances of surviving. It is unlikely they would enjoy idyllic relations with a new regime. Then, as becomes clear from the argument I have made, above, the survival of these parties would serve as a positive factor in democratization. They themselves are unlikely to become advocates of democracy, but that does not matter. What matters is that their presence in parliament, if it is considerable, would help restrain the authoritarian impulses of the new ruling group, if they manifest themselves.

I believe the MPs in the current parliamentary parties are neither fools in the mundane nor the political sense. Mainly, they are cunning, experienced wheeler-dealers who have managed to maintain their places at the top of Russia’s turbulent political heap. Clearly, however, they have used their tenure in parliament to preserve features of the current system that benefit them. In other words, they would lobby against progress under a new system, and this would indeed inject a hefty dose of stupidity into the work of building democracy in Russia. The dilemma is this. To stave off the new regime’s authoritarian impulses, they would have to be influential, but they would fritter away their influence on impeding reform.

Hence, I am inclined to think that a semi-presidential system would be optimal in a democratic Russia. The president would have serious powers, albeit powers severely limited by the constitution. Structurally speaking, it would approximate the European parliamentary system more than the presidential system of the US and most Latin American countries. However, it is now utterly useless to go into the details of this system, because they would depend greatly on the transition to democracy, now concealed from us by our imaginary black box.

However, I do not see any particular problems with a parliamentary system in a future Russia. Democracy is not only the rule of “democrats” as a party (a truth we in Russia have already swallowed, it seems), but nor is it necessarily the rule of politicans who adhere to democratic views. The presence of such politicians is extremely beneficial. But views are a shaky thing, and what matters more in a democracy is the structure of political competition. We know several examples of successful democratization, from late eighteenth-century France to modern Bangladesh, in which the role of card-carrying democrats in the initial state of the transition was extremely modest, and the main fight took place among several dictatorial factions. What mattered was that they successfully prevented each other from establishing a new dictatorship.

Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

A Guide for the Perplexed Russian Voter

A Voter’s Strategy
Grigorii Golosov
Polit.ru
September 6, 2016

Campaigning on the streets of Moscow, August 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of Kirill Zykov and Moscow City News Agency

Compared with previous elections to the Duma, the parliamentary elections scheduled in Russia for September 18, 2016, have a number of peculiarities. And it is not only because the elections will be held under a mixed system, proportional and majoritarian simultaneously. The 2016 election campaign is different from all previous campaigns.

Grigorii Golosov, a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, talked to Polit.ru about the unusual aspects of the current election campaign, its likely outcome, and alternative scenarios and strategies that the politically active segment of society should keep in mind.

It is obvious what is unusual about these elections: they are taking place in September rather than December. They were not scheduled for September accidentally, of course, but to things easier for United Russia.

The election campaign has gone completely unnoticed. In addition, it is quite short compared with the campaigns we have had earlier. It is completely obvious [the regime] is counting on the fact that it will fail to catch voters’ attention at all.

Campaigning on the streets of Moscow, August 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of Kirill Zykov/Moscow City News Agency

This means people are basically expected not to have political motivations to vote in these elections. What motivations could they have if they simply know nothing about the elections or who is running in them? This, in turn, means the people organizing the election campaign are counting on the fact that the bulk of voters will be people who are obliged to vote for one reason or other, or have a material stake in voting.

We essentially know what segments of the populace these are: employees of state-funded organizations; pensioners; and employees of certain major enterprises where management may be able to influence how they vote. Since their reasons for going to vote are so unpolitical, they will vote as they are told to vote, meaning for United Russia.

Voting during United Russia’s primaries in Khabarovsk, May 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of United Russia

Given such a scenario, it follows that United Russia will receive a substantial majority. I think this year they won’t go after the really big numbers that you can achieve only by falsifying the turnout. Probably, however, the optimal scenario for the authorities would involve United Russia’s getting fifty to fifty-five percent of the proportional vote according to party lists.

In addition, it is already clear, given the fact that the electoral districts are mainly controlled by the regional authorities, that United Russia will also get an overwhelming majority of the seats in the [single-mandate] districts. Thus, in tandem with their numbers in the proportional voting part of the ballot, United Russia will again be able to control the Duma completely and reliably support the legislation drafted by the presidential administration and the government.

The alternative scenario would consist in more people coming out to vote, and some of them coming out for political reasons.

Frankly speaking, even those people who support Vladimir Putin have no particular political motivation to vote for United Russia, because Dmitry Medvedev is heading the party in these elections. He bears no responsibility for foreign policy, whose successes have been trumpeted constantly. Both Medvedev and United Russia are linked in voters’ eyes with domestic policy and, thus, with the economic situation in Russia. A considerable part of Russian society now senses that it is getting worse.

Dmitry Medvedev meeting with pensioners in Lipetsk on August 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of United Russia

However, many parties involved in these elections exhibit no less loyalty to Putin and his foreign policies than United Russia does, and under these circumstances, politically motivated voters have no particular incentive to vote for the ruling party.

We should also not forget that support even for Putin’s foreign policy is not universal in Russia, and pollsters have always recorded a fairly considerable group of people who do not support this policy in any way and oppose Putin. Strategically, the current election campaign is meant to discourage this segment of Russian voters from going out to vote at all. They have been sent a variety of signals to the effect that voting is pointless, the elections are pointless, and they had better stay home.

Will it work? It is quite likely that it will, and so I find United Russia’s optimistic scenario more plausible. However, there will undoubtedly be a certain number of politically motivated voters turning out for the elections. How many votes the United Russia list will garner in proportional voting will depend on this number.

Regardless of the published opinion poll results, the spread could be quite wide. I would suggest somewhere between forty percent (in the event that the turnout of political motivated voters is quite high) and fifty-five percent. But this will have no significant impact on the makeup of the State Duma, because in any case it will be controlled through the single-mandate MPs.  Besides, many parties who might get votes from politically motivated voters are not likely to clear the five-percent barrier for entering the Duma.

However, precisely because the outcome of these elections are politically unimportant in terms of controlling the State Duma, they could be politically important as a demonstration of Russian society’s attitude toward the authorities in general, meaning the attitude of its politically engaged segment. In this sense, I would argue opposition-minded voters should understand they can reduce United Russia’s vote total, thus showing it does not enjoy unanimous support, or they can increase it by not coming out to vote.

What should they do if they do come out to vote?  If they do not dislike it intensely, they can vote for the party that has adopted a directly oppositional stance, i.e., for PARNAS. Or they can vote for a party that, while generally deferent to the authorities, exercises this deference in a particular way, i.e., for Yabloko.

PARNAS on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy of Alla Naumcheva and PARNAS

Taking into account what I have said about small parties not clearing the five-percent barrier, voters can, nevertheless, vote for the small parties. If, for whatever reason, they definitely do not feel like voting for either PARNAS or Yabloko, they can vote for other small parties, even if they do not particularly like them.

It would probably be pointless to vote for parties who have no chance of garnering votes, but there is a limited number of minor parties that have some chances. I would identify the Communists of Russia, the Pensioners Party, the Party of Growth, and, possibly, Motherland. I have mentioned Motherland partly because there is nationalist feeling within society, and party because they ended up in the first slot on the voting ballot. During the free elections that took place in Russia in the 1990s, first place in the voting ballot always gave the party listed there a palpable bonus of about one percent of the vote.

Communists of Russia campaigner handing out the party’s pamphlets. Kirov Region, September 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of comros.info

It is not a matter of whether these parties are decent or not. During these elections, if they espouse genuinely oppositional views, the strategy of politically motivated voters should be based not on facilitating a particular candidate’s victory or impacting the breakdown of mandates. (From this point of view, it does not matter who gets into the Duma.) Their strategy should be based only on showing the policies now pursued by the Russian authorities do not enjoy unanimous support. And this can be achieved by doing what I have talked about.

Translated by the Russian Reader