Suffrage is universal, and the minimum voting age is 18. As of 2003, there were 109 million registered voters. In the 2003 parliamentary elections the voter turn out was 48 percent. In the March 2000 presidential election it was around 70 percent. In the 1999 parliamentary elections the voter turn out was 63 percent.

The polling for Russian elections takes place from 8:00am to 10:00pm on Sunday. This means that an election can unfold over more than 24 hours across 11 time zones, with voters in Kamchatka in the Far East near Japan voting first and those in Kaliningard near Germany voting last. Voters present their internal passports, receive several ballots on which they place marks and place the ballots on plastic boxes.

Elections are organized and overseen by the 15-member Central Election Commission. Human rights group and international observers have monitored the result. The president, the State Duma, and the Federation Council each appoint five commission members to four-year terms. According to the constitution, the chairman of that commission is third in Russia’s leadership line behind the president and the prime minister. The 89 subnational jurisdictions have equivalent commissions, which in turn oversee some 2,700 regional election commissions. The president and members of the Duma are elected by direct ballot to four-year terms. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006]

Russian women were among the first in the world to be allowed to vote. They obtained the right to vote in 1917, compared to 1944 in France, 1919 in Germany, 1920 in the U.S., 1928 in Britain, and 1931 in Spain.

Putin’s Authoritarian Changes

Putin consolidated power by making authoritarian changes in line with his system of “managed democracy” and “vertical of power.” The December 2004 election for regional governors was scrapped. Instead the governors were selected by the president and approved by regional assemblies, which were largely loyal to the Kremlin. The West criticized the move as an erosion of democracy. Putin argued it was necessary for national unity. Rather than being upset many of the regional leaders praised the proposal. A force behind these changes was the Besland school massacre, which left hundreds of school children dead at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Putin also replaced direct elections for half the members of parliament with a party list system in which people voted for parties and the parties selected who would take the seats in parliament. Under this system parliament members were selected proportionally based on party lists compiled by the main parties, all of which were centered in Moscow and susceptible to Kremlin influence. This effectively made the Duma a rubber stamp body.

Other changes included banning coalitions between smaller parties by preventing them from merging their party lists and raising the minimum vote necessary for a party to enter from five percent to seven percent. For a political party to be officially registered it needed to have 50,000 members in each of Russia’s 89 provinces. No sector of the government was spared. The entire system of checks and balances was compromised if not undermined. Control seemed to be the central theme of the changes, and the fact that democracy was too messy and uncontrollable and had to be reigned in.

U.S. Senator John McCain has accused Putin of staging a “creeping coup” Putin said the changes were necessary to create a stable, multi-party system in Russia. “If no environment is created for the growth of the parties’ authority, we will never have a real multiparty system.” He added, it was necessary to create “parties that are capable of taking a real part in the political life of the country and providing for unified national interests.” On democracy, Putin said: “If by democracy one means dissolution of the state, then who needs democracy. Why is democracy needed? To make people’s lives better, to make them free. I don’t think there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos.”

Presidential Elections

President elections: The Russian president is elected by popular vote for a six-year term (eligible for a second term). The elections are normally held in March. The last one was held on March 4, 2012. The next one will be held in March 2018). The term length was extended from four to six years in late 2008, effective after the 2012 election. There is no vice president; if the president dies in office, cannot exercise his powers because of ill health, is impeached, or resigns, the premier serves as acting president until a new presidential election is held, which must be within three months; premier appointed by the president with the approval of the Duma. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Presidential election results 2012: Vladimir PUTIN elected president (percent of vote): Vladimir PUTIN 63.6 percent, Gennadiy ZYUGANOV 17.2 percent, Mikhail PROKHOROV 8 percent,Vladimir ZHIRINOVSKIY 6.2 percent, Sergey MIRONOV 3.9 percent, other 1.1 percent; Dmitriy MEDVEDEV approved as premier by Duma; vote - 299 to 144. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

It is illegal for a president to campaign openly on behalf of a political party. Running for President as an independent requires collection of 2 million signatures on petitions. In February 2004, lawmakers in the Duma began some discussion of amending the constitution to extend the presidential term to seven years.

Presidential Elections are held every six years. The date is set four months in advance by the upper house. The presidential election includes a runoff between the top two vote- getters if no candidate gains a majority on the first ballot. A turn out of 50 percent is necessary or the election has to be done over. If the voter turnout in the presidential election is less than 50 percent, the prime minister becomes president for a month at which point a new election is held.

Rules Governing Russian Presidential Elections in Russia

The constitution sets few requirements for presidential elections, deferring in many matters to other provisions established by law. A candidate for president must be a citizen of Russia, at least thirty-five years of age, and a resident of the country for at least ten years. If a president becomes unable to continue in office because of health problems, resignation, impeachment, or death, a presidential election is to be held not more than three months later. In such a situation, the Federation Council is empowered to set the election date. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Law on Presidential Elections, ratified in May 1995, establishes the legal basis for presidential elections. Based on a draft submitted by Yeltsin's office, the new law included many provisions already contained in the Russian Republic's 1990 election law; alterations included the reduction in the number of signatures required to register a candidate from 2 million to 1 million. The law, which set rigorous standards for fair campaign and election procedures, was hailed by international analysts as a major step toward democratization. Under the law, parties, blocs, and voters' groups register with the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and designate their candidates. These organizations then are permitted to begin seeking the 1 million signatures needed to register their candidates; no more than 7 percent of the signatures may come from a single federal jurisdiction. The purpose of the 7 percent requirement is to promote candidacies with broad territorial bases and eliminate those supported by only one city or ethnic enclave. *

The law requires that at least 50 percent of eligible voters participate in order for a presidential election to be valid. In State Duma debate over the legislation, some deputies had advocated a minimum of 25 percent (which was later incorporated into the electoral law covering the State Duma), warning that many Russians were disillusioned with voting and would not turn out. To make voter participation easier, the law required one voting precinct for approximately every 3,000 voters, with voting allowed until late at night. The conditions for absentee voting were eased, and portable ballot boxes were to be made available on demand. Strict requirements were established for the presence of election observers, including emissaries from all participating parties, blocs, and groups, at polling places and local electoral commissions to guard against tampering and to ensure proper tabulation. *

The Law on Presidential Elections requires that the winner receive more than 50 percent of the votes cast. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote (a highly probable result because of multiple candidacies), the top two vote-getters must face each other in a runoff election. Once the results of the first round are known, the runoff election must be held within fifteen days. A traditional provision allows voters to check off "none of the above," meaning that a candidate in a two-person runoff might win without attaining a majority. Another provision of the election law empowers the CEC to request that the Supreme Court ban a candidate from the election if that candidate advocates a violent transformation of the constitutional order or the integrity of the Russian Federation.

1996 Presidential Election

The presidential election of 1996 was a major episode in the struggle between Yeltsin and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (Kommunisticheskaya partiya Rossiyskoy Federatsii — KPRF), which sought to oust Yeltsin from office and return to power. Yeltsin had banned the Communist Party of the Russian Republic for its central role in the August 1991 coup against the Gorbachev government. As a member of the Politburo and the Secretariat of the banned party,Gennadiy Zyuganov had worked hard to gain its relegalization. Despite Yeltsin's objections, the Constitutional Court cleared the way for the Russian communists to reemerge as the KPRF, headed by Zyuganov, in February 1993. Yeltsin temporarily banned the party again in October 1993 for its role in the Supreme Soviet's just-concluded attempt to overthrow his administration. Beginning in 1993, Zyuganov also led efforts by KPRF deputies to impeach Yeltsin. After the KPRF's triumph in the December 1995 legislative elections, Yeltsin announced that he would run for reelection with the main purpose of safeguarding Russia from a communist restoration.

Although there was speculation that losing parties in the December 1995 election might choose not to nominate presidential candidates, in fact dozens of citizens both prominent and obscure announced their candidacies. After the gathering and review of signature lists, the CEC validated eleven candidates, one of whom later dropped out.

In the opinion polls of early 1996, Yeltsin trailed far behind most of the other candidates; his popularity rating was below 10 percent for a prolonged period. However, a last-minute, intense campaign featuring heavy television exposure, speeches throughout Russia promising increased state expenditures for a wide variety of interest groups, and campaign-sponsored concerts boosted Yeltsin to a 3 percent plurality over Zyuganov in the first round. At that point, Yeltsin took the tactically significant step of appointing first-round presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed', who had placed third behind Yeltsin and Zyuganov, as head of the Security Council. Yeltsin followed the appointment of Lebed' as the president's top adviser on national security by dismissing several top hard-line members of his entourage who were widely blamed for human rights violations in Chechnya and other mistakes. Despite his virtual disappearance from public view for health reasons shortly thereafter, Yeltsin was able to sustain his central message that Russia should move forward rather than return to its communist past. Zyuganov failed to mount an energetic or convincing second campaign, and three weeks after the first phase of the election, Yeltsin easily defeated his opponent, 54 percent to 40 percent.

Turnout in the first round was high, with about 70 percent of 108.5 million voters participating. Total turnout in the second round was nearly the same as in the first round. A contingent of almost 1,000 international observers judged the election to be largely fair and democratic, as did the CEC.

Most observers in Russia and elsewhere concurred that the election boosted democratization in Russia, and many asserted that reforms in Russia had become irreversible. Yeltsin had strengthened the institution of regularly contested elections when he rejected calls by business organizations and other groups and some of his own officials to cancel or postpone the balloting because of the threat of violence. The high turnout indicated that voters had confidence that their ballots would count, and the election went forward without incident. The democratization process also was bolstered by Yeltsin's willingness to change key personnel and policies in response to public protests and by his unprecedented series of personal campaign appearances throughout Russia.

Legislative Elections

Legislative elections are normally in December and take place every four years. The last State Duma election was held on December 4, 2011. The next one will be held in December 2016. Election results: State Duma: United Russia (Putin’s party) 49.6 percent, CPRF 19.2 percent,A Just Russia 13.2 percent, LDPR 11.7 percent, other 6.3 percent. Seats by party - United Russia 238, CPRF 92, A Just Russia 64, LDPR 56. The State Duma now includes 2 representatives each from the Republic of Crimea and Federal City of Sevastopol, two annexed Ukrainian regions that the United States does not recognize as part of Russia.

In 2006 the single-member constituencies that had elected half (225) of the Duma members were abolished, instead awarding all seats according to national party vote totals and eliminating the possibility of independents gaining seats. To achieve representation, a party must gain at least 7 percent of total votes. In 2003 parliamentary election, half the 450 seats were filled by individuals. The other half were allocated proportionally based on party lists. A minimum of five percent of the vote was required to enter the Duma as a party.

Parliamentary elections used to held a few months before the presidential elections. The official date used to be fixed about four months before the presidential election by the President but that is not always the case now because presidential elections are every six years and parliamentary elections are every four years.

The ballots have the names of the candidates and the logos of the parties. The ballot for the parliamentary elections in 2003 had the names and logos of 23 parties, plus a box at the end for “Against All Candidates.” Voters were required to place an X in the box next to the individual candidate they wanted and the party they wanted. The party choice was used to select the seats that are proportionally distributed by party.

In the early 2000s, many of the parties had similar names—some purposely so to take votes away from other parties—and voters were very confused. Each polling station was supposed to have photos and biographies of the candidates to help votes. These guides were often confusing and the information they printed was not always correct.

Elections in the Communist Era

There were "free" elections but people who were not members of the Communist party were not allowed to run. Voting usually didn't take long. Each postcard-size ballot often had only one name on it. Sometimes two party members ran for the same office.

The only parties were the Communist Party or parties affiliated with the Communist party. Opposition parties were not tolerated

Soviet-style election campaigns consisted of making a poster with your identity card picture on it and sending flowers and meeting with the “right” people. Voters received a carnation the first time they participated in an election.

According to the Economist, "Communist Party officials function as a ruling class. They are a self-selected group accountable to nobody. They oversee government and industry, courts and parliaments." Elections are allowed for 'people's congresses'’so long as the party does not object to the contestants."

Political Campaigns in Russia

In the 1990s, political campaigns could be wild, entertaining events. Politicians running for office in 1995 ran television ads with animals, cosmonauts and pornography stars. During the 1996 campaign, a man in Moscow's Gorky Park pulled a five-ton truck—covered with posters of presidential candidate Svyatoslav Fyodorov—with his teeth. Negative advertising, incumbents getting extra air time on television and politicians wooing church leaders were all common place. In 1996, presidential candidate Alexander Lebed had slick ads that raised fears about crime and corruption and Vladimir Zhirinovsky was pictured with scantily clad women.

Rock bands and pop stars often make appearances at campaigns, even some famous foreign ones. The party of Communist Party leader Chernomyrdin hired Kool and the Gang and the raper Hammer to perform at concerts sponsored by his campaign. Hammer was paid $150,000 a concert even though his album released around that failed to break into the Billboard top 200. Russian politicians also sponsored a Davis Cup tennis tournament. Who can forget Yeltsin’s famous dance in 1996.

Under Putin, political campaigns have not been as freewheeling and free as the once were. Many candidates have a hard time just getting their face on television. A law signed by Putin barred the media from providing information deemed to be election advocacy. There have not been many political debates, just posters scattered around town. Most candidates barely have enough money for that. Running a national campaign is virtually impossible because of a lack of television exposure and money.

In the early 2000s, television stations tended to portray the Communists, the main opposition in a negative light while devoting a third of their air time to portraying Putin in a positive light. The control of Putin over the media was so completer that his party was judged as having the best performance in televised debates even thought it didn’t participate in any of them. One survey found that before the 2003 parliamentary elections one station devoted 56 percent of its air time to Putin and his party. Putin once said that he would never stoop so low as to use campaign advertising as if the President were “Tampax or Snickers.”

Voter Irregularities in Russia

Reports of voter irregularities in Russia have included pre-marked ballots and pressure on students, soldiers and factor workers to vote a certain way. Politicians get the required 200,000 signatures to run for office not by knocking on doors but by paying special services for petitions that already have signatures on them.

In the campaign before the 2003 parliamentary elections there were allegations of government money being funneled to the campaign of Putin’s party in the form of loans for buildings and planes. There were also reports of dead people casting votes for his party and employees at stores being required to wear United Party buttons. One candidate who lost an election in St. Petersburg alleged that “400 students at a military academy were marched into one polling station, and an officer checked every ballot paper.”

The most affective way that elections are manipulated is through “administration resources.” Candidates that pose a real threat are often eliminated through registration technicalities by election commissions that are either corrupt or in cahoots with the ruling party. Candidates can also be shut off television broadcast, cut off from funding, harassed through smear campaigns and penalized for minor infractions. Some candidates have lawyers to ensure they are not eliminated because of technicalities but even then they are defeated in the corrupt courts.

In 2000, before local election, a candidate for governor was dismissed just 13 hours before the voting because of a technical violations in regard to his filing forms. He tried again again, running for parliament member. He made a special effort to file his forms correctly but was thrown off the ballot again. This time his violation was misrepresenting the size of his apartment.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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