DA! and NO!

Russian voters gave a huge “DA!” to Putin in legislative elections that were a de-facto referendum on extending Putin’s “national leader” status beyond the scheduled expiration of his presidential tenure next spring.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan voters narrowly gave a “NO!” to the referendum by Chávez to extend his own tenure, as well as his powers and the role of the state in the economy.

I am unsurprised by the Russian result. Some months ago I said Putin’s party would win two thirds to three fourths of the seats, despite polls at the time that said 47% of the vote. It would appear that United Russia will have right around 70% of the seats. Stay tuned as to whether this is a step towards having the power to amend the constitution and abolish the term limit, or whether he will find other ways to exercise the dominance that he will claim a mandate for.

I am surprised by the Venezuela result. Pleasantly so. A 51-49 YES would have been a terrible outcome. A 51-49 NO could be salutary.

A couple of paragraphs from this morning’s LA Times well sum up what Venezuela’s voters turned down:

Chavez’s goal is authoritarian in nature, said Agustin Blanco Munoz, a researcher at Central University of Venezuela who wrote a biography based partially on jailhouse interviews he conducted after Chavez was imprisoned for leading the unsuccessful 1992 coup attempt.

“His model isn’t communism or socialism. It’s a varnish, a cover for a personalist system that exalts Chavez above all else as the caudillo, the new messiah, not the collective society,” Blanco Munoz said.

On the Russian vote, it is interesting that the other parties on the ballot listed the top three candidates on their national lists, whereas United Russia listed only Putin. The Times reported that many voters appeared unaware that it was a legislative election. Clearly, that was Putin’s intent, by abolishing the nominal tier of the former electoral system, and by creating the mass movement demanding him to stay on. Putin continues to deny he intends a third term. Will he be convinced otherwise, by the great democratic outpouring? ((Please be sure your irony detector is appropriately calibrated.))

Turnout was only around 55% in Venezuela, meaning only around 28% actually voted no. But good enough, for now, anyway. Russia’s turnout was around 60%, so only about 38% of the eligible electorate has endorsed this overwhelming majority. But good enough.

The electoral path to authoritarianism?

Two elections on Sunday are worth watching as examples of an electoral path to authoritarianism. In Venezuela, voters will vote on a series of constitutional amendments that would greatly enhance the power of both the state in the economy and the president within the state. In Russia, voters will vote in legislative Duma elections that are sure to result in the outgoing President’s party winning a massive majority of the seats.

In both cases, we are witnessing the consolidation of authoritarian systems despite ongoing electoral processes and the retention of formal institutions of separated powers.

The Venezuelan referendum features votes on two packages of amendments. Both packages bundle reforms on both economic and social policy claims on the state and powers of the presidency. Of course, one of the reforms would lift the existing term limit on the presidency itself.

Steven Taylor has posted an image of the ballot. He also quotes from venezuelanalysis.com:

Venezuelans will vote on the reform on December 2nd and will do so in two blocks. Block “A” includes President Chavez’s original proposal, as amended by the National Assembly, which would change 33 articles out of the 350 articles in the constitution. Also included in block A are another 13 articles introduced by the National Assembly. Block “B” includes another 26 reform articles proposed by the National Assembly. Voters may vote “Yes” or “No” on each block.

Steven also posts a link to a PDF of the text of the reforms (in Spanish).

Polls have been somewhat mixed about the chances of the referendum, but it would be surprising if the substantial organizational prowess of the Chavista forces were insufficient to get the proposals over the 50% hurdle. How much over is hard to say. A close vote–either way–would be potentially dangerous, revealing the deep polarization.

Meanwhile, in the event that the referendum loses or is very close, the Chávez camp is already prepared with the charges of CIA fomenting of opposition. James Petras, a well known sociologist and Latin Americanist, was on Democracy Now! this morning discussing these allegations and a supposed memo. (The memo may well be real, but its source was the Chávez government, so there is reason to be skeptical.) And could the CIA be working with Trotskyites? Petras thinks so! (Many leftists flocked to Chávez and then later broke with him, so there are indeed many left-wing organizations among the opposition.)

Petras suggests that there is nothing particularly worrisome about the end of presidential term limits, and notes that the Chávez camp likes to cite cases of long tenure in parliamentary systems (Blair, Howard, and Japan’s LDP are specifically mentioned) as evidence that there is nothing out of the ordinary for democracies to have one party, even one leader, in power for multiple terms, even decades.

The government has argued, with some effectiveness, that in the parliamentary systems you have indefinite terms of office… So they don’t see this as—they don’t describe this as an unusual happening, much more like a parliamentary system, rather than a presidential system, though in this case—

Unfortunately, just as this comparative institutions stuff was getting interesting, the interviewer cut Petras off and changed the subject. But maybe it was just as well, as this is actually very bad comparative politics. There is, of course, nothing that Chávez is proposing that is making the system more parliamentary. Quite the contrary. He is proposing to concentrate ever more authority in his own hands, and to make himself eligible for reelection in perpetuity.

Not even a Howard, a Blair, or a Thatcher ever enjoyed the concentration of power that a president potentially can have for the simple reason that parliamentary systems enforce collective responsibility within the cabinet and promote party-building by the government and opposition alike. There are reasons why very few parliamentary systems have term limits, while such limits on executive tenure exist for virtually all elected presidents who serve as unchallenged head of their government (i.e. without a PM accountable to parliament). There are also reasons why almost all authoritarian leaders that arise within formally parliamentary institutions eventually change the formal institutions to presidential (e.g. Mugabe in Zimbabwe, among many others). While democratic presidential institutions actually put more checks on the chief executive than is the case in some majoritarian parliamentary democracies, there is no escaping the fact that presidential institutions are far more amenable to the electoral path to authoritarianism than are parliamentary.

The president fully controls the cabinet (and, in the absence of an institutionalized legislature with countervailing incentives, may also directly command the bureaucracy). The president runs for office directly and often–as in Venezuela–needs only a plurality of the votes. And the president need not have an institutionalized party as his vehicle for political support. It is feasible to have a party that is little more than a vehicle for placing presidential loyalists in the legislature via the president’s own coattails. As Chávez has.

There are, on the other hand, no particularly good models of parliamentary authoritarianism. And that makes the Russian case all the more interesting. Here we have a vast federal and multi-ethnic country–empire, really–that has been governed under a presidential democracy or semi-democracy since almost the moment that the USSR began to fall apart in 1990. At that point, the Russian legislature chose Boris Yeltsin to be president as part of its assertion of authority against the crumbling USSR institutions.

Yeltsin’s successor as president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, is now wrapping up his second of his constitutionally prescribed maximum two terms. In the legislative election Sunday, Putin will be heading the list of candidates of his United Russia Party. Just under two months ago, he announced intention to continue playing a “major role” in Russian political life.

There has been talk of Putin taking on some, as yet informal, title like “Leader of the Nation.” Yet without a formal institution under his command, he would be unlikely to retain the powerful de-facto role he and his supporters appear to have in mind for him, especially given that the presidency will soon be in the hands of a successor. I remain puzzled as to why Putin did not use his evidently vast political machine and patronage to secure an abolition of the presidential term limit.

One possibility is that Putin will suddenly decide that Russia’s ‘democratization’ requires a move to a parliamentary system, so Putin can be the perpetual prime minister. But then we are up against the fact that, as I noted, there are no really good models of parliamentary authoritarianism. Will Russia embark on one?

Another possibility is suggested in a news item at Canada.com:

It is thought that he will declare a preferred surrogate — the current favourites are Kremlin insiders Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and former minister of defence, or Dmitri Medvedev, chairman of Gazprom (Russia’s largest company) or Viktor Zubkov, whom Putin recently hand-picked as prime minister — to replace him as president.

Then, after winning the presidency, Putin’s successor would resign, paving the way for emergency elections by which Putin could become president again.

Whatever the scenario, it is likely that both Russia’a and Venezuela’s elections on Sunday are further steps in the dismantling of electoral democracies and their transformation into authoritarian regimes.

Russia’s frontmen

Russia Profile has an interesting article on the party lists that are now in the process of being registered for Duma elections.

Some excerpts:

At the federal level, voters know parties mostly by the top three candidates on the party list who will be the first to enter the Duma if a party receives more than 7 percent of the vote nationwide.

With the notable exception of United Russia [the ruling party], almost all parties made their top three candidates public at their conventions.

Parties that are at risk of winning less than 7% of the nationwide votes are really struggling to stand out by personalizing their lists:

The smaller parties, striving to attract attention, put popular figures and TV personalities on their lists, even if the credentials of those people were somewhat controversial. The Civil Force, a party popularly seen as a “spoiler” group aimed at stealing the liberal vote from the Union of Right Forces, is headed by attorney Mikhail Barshchevsky, a popular figure on various intellectual TV shows, and Mariya Arbatova, a fiery feminist and TV personality known for her non-standard views on sex and marriage.

Some experts and prominent public figures expressed dissatisfaction at this tendency, saying that it turns serious politics into a contest for viewers’ sympathies.

“Parties do not know how to attract attention to themselves,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Unity in the Name of Russia foundation, a think tank associated with United Russia. “So they try to attract television viewers by putting familiar faces into their lists who have no real political meaning whatsoever.

When party labels are so weak, and the threshold so high, indeed they do.

The article also notes that, in addition to a national list, there are regional lists, which had not previously been clear to me in any summaries of the new all-list electoral system.

In accordance with recent change in electoral law, for the first time, parties have to register regional lists, with the hope that voters will be able to choose from candidates they know from local news and events.

The election is 2 December. Previous entries on the election can be found by clicking on either of the orchard blocks in which this one was “planted in,” above.

Russia: Official start to Duma campaign

The campaign for the election to the State Duma (lower house) of the Russian Federation is officially underway.

As Kommersant notes, “The answer to the main question is known in advance. The United Russia Party will certainly win more than half the seats in the lower house.” (Earlier I suggested at least two thirds.)

Nonetheless, Kommersant suggests, there is some suspense:

The first intrigue is whether or not the potential successors to Putin (or even one of them) will top the election lists of the two parties in power, United Russia and Just Russia. ((Just Russia was one of the parties an earlier poll suggested was right at the 7% threshold. Of course, if a prominent Putin ally heads its list, it is almost certain to clear, and its doing so would only inflate the total “parties of power” seat total, if they draw from an even slightly different pool of voters.))

Those candidates would be Sergey Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, both of whom have served Putin as First Deputy Prime Minister.

The Levada Center conducted a special survey in July to find out how Russians felt about Ivanov heading the party list for United Russia in the Duma elections, and about Medvedev heading Just Russia. Forty-four percent of respondents favored the Ivanov-United Russia pairing, with 14 percent opposed, and 36 percent favored Medvedev-Just Russia, with 17 percent opposed.

The combination they appear in will have more influence on the upcoming presidential elections that on the Duma elections. Both parties’ voters will be oriented not toward specific persons, but toward the leadership as a whole. They will vote for the party in power regardless of who leads it, whether it is the speaker of the Duma, a first deputy prime minister or just some mayor. But for either of the successors the top spot on the party list will mean the transition from potential candidate to real contender for the Kremlin.

The article includes a photo with the caption, “In three months, parties, and only parties, will divide up the seats in the State Duma.” This is, of course, a reference to the abolition of the nominal tier of single-seat districts. The election will be via closed list in a single nationwide district, 7% national threshold.

Regarding the change of electoral system, the Kommersant article notes:

There is no doubt that the Kremlin’s long nurturing of a two-party system has come to fruition, even if it has yet to reach it final form (Russia is still far from the Anglo-American system of alternating parties). That, in the final analysis, was why Kremlin political technologists made the Duma elections based exclusively on party lists and reduced the number of parties, lightening the ballast that made the entire party system less manageable.

The point about “managing” the party system (and the heavy “ballast” of legislators who actually campaign in local races) is a good deal more apt than any supposed parallel to the “Anglo-American system of alternating parties.” In fact, the piece goes on to suggest that the “the minimum program remains to guarantee that pro-Kremlin parties receive a total of two-thirds of the votes in the lower house.”

The final question addressed in the article is whether the “democratic parties” will make it into the Duma. That is somewhat doubtful.

Kazakhstan’s Jews, democratization and US foreign policy

Via the J-Post:

US Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV), paid an official visit to Kazakhstan last week at the invitation of Euro-Asian Jewish Congress President Alexander Mashkevich. […]

As local Jewish media reports, Berkley was “impressed by the integration of the Jewish community on all the levels of social and political life” in Kazakhstan. “I am confident that tolerance towards other nations is a basis for successful development of every country”, she said. As local analysts wrote, “the status of the Jewish communities in the post-Soviet states often corresponds with the level of democratic development. Flourishing and highly involved communities are a good sign of democratization processes and openness. Kazakhstan’s Jewry constitutes an accurate example of such a concept, as its leaders support and promote the country’s rapprochement with the West and with the United States in particular”.

While I am certainly prepared to believe that the status of a country’s’ Jewish community is a reasonably good proxy for various civic freedoms, the idea that there is a “democratization process” in Kazakhstan is laughable. Freedom House, for example, gives Kazakhstan a score of 5 on civil liberties and 6 on political rights, where 7 denotes the lowest levels of freedom possible. Freedom House further notes:

it has been plagued by a rise in authoritarianism and overwhelming levels of corruption within the ruling regime. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in office since 1989 and president since 1991, and he has allowed his family and close associates to take control of vital economic resources and political positions. President Nazarbayev was reelected first in 1999 in elections widely seen as marred, and in December 2005, he was granted an extended 7-year term in office through elections criticized as not meeting international standards. The executive branch controls both the parliament and the judicial system. Recently, the regime increased harassment of NGOs and independent media.

One should never conflate “integration of the Jewish community on all the levels of social and political life”–nor especially “rapprochement with the West and with the United States in particular” –with a “democratization process.”


Surprise, surprise, the ruling party won the legislative elections of 18 August. In fact, it won all 99 seats.

United Russia’s hegemonony

Just like Ukraine, Russia will soon be electing all 450 of its legislators* in a single national district, via closed lists. Unlike Ukraine, however, in Russia the new electoral system is part of a centralized ruling party’s process of further centralization. Russia is, unsurprisingly given the narrowing of political space under outgoing President Vladimir Putin, headed for a hegemonic-party system. A recent Angus Reid poll suggests:

    United Russia (YR): 46%
    Communist Party (KPRF): 9%
    Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR): 9%
    A Just Russia: 7%
    Agrarian Party of Russia (APR): 2%
    Yabloko (Liberal): 1%
    Union of Right Forces (SPS): 1%
    Another party 1%
    Would not vote: 7%
    Hard to answer: 19%

(I am pretty sure I have never seen a poll with “Hard to answer” as an option before.)

The threshold is 7% (compare Ukraine’s 3%). So, the poll suggests only two or three small parties aside from YR would make it into parliament. It would not take many parties missing the threshold to result in sufficient wasted votes to give YR a majority of seats, even if it indeed wins only 46% of the vote. But it is likely that it will win much more than 50% of the votes, once we take the nonvoters out of the denominator, and imagine that the “hard to answer” bloc ultimately will include a significant number of YR voters. In fact, I would guess we could be looking at two thirds to three quarters of the seats for United Russia.

The election is 2 December. The presidential election to choose (make that anoint) Putin’s successor is expected in March, 2008.

* Unlike Ukraine, Russia also has an upper house, though its members are not elected.

Shocking: Turkmenistani rules changed!

The degree of institutionalization of an authoritarian regime is often somewhat ambiguous. But when a regime–and, even more, the country itself–has had only one leader, and his rule has been seemingly unchecked, the ambiguity is considerably less. So, it is hardly shocking that the interim president, selected by the Turkmenistani parliament after the unexpected death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, has suddenly had his constitutionally ineligibility for a full term lifted by parliament. The election–which almost no one expects to be fair–is set for 11 February.

Update: Robert Mayer has posted the best photo I have seen of the amazing (in an absolutely absurd sort of way) statue of “Turkmenbashi” himself.