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The Russian political party system is well-on-its way to consolidation.

In order to meaningfully analyze and judge the preceding statement, it is necessary to specify and justify its interpretation. To some extent, any explication of the denotation and connotation of such a phrase must itself be an argument for or against it, but we will reserve the bulk of that argument for separate consideration. The key term consolidation clearly denotes a simple reduction in the number of parties and the strengthening of parties. Further, we appeal to Axel Hadenius's application of Samuel Huntington's idea of institutionalization, which Huntington defines as “a process by which organisations and procedures acquire value and stability” (Huntington 1968, in Hadenius 2002, p. 3). Hadenius uses this definition of institutionalization as a measure of party development and thus consolidation. While we will work within Hadenius's framework, he cautions, “The link between party development and the survival of democracy, it seems, is mainly taken for granted. There may of course be some sort of connection, but this remains to be demonstrated.” (p. 2). Thus, the question becomes: Has the Russian party system made steps towards a foreseeable future where it is stable and valuable? Party stability can be measured quantitatively, but establishing the latter is much harder; we will take value to be derived largely from political efficacy, that is, the extent to which political parties frame and shape the political arena. If we were to define parties' value not in terms of their own efficacy, but rather in terms of to what degree they are democratic or further democracy, we would be unnecessarily conflating the goals of democracy with the goals of parties. We then are not taking a popular orientation, but rather considering consolidation as an phenomenon driven by the elites. In the case of Russia, where parties have thus far been headed and created by political and economic insiders, largely former Soviet bureaucrats and Muscovites, this perspective is justified.

Stability in the party system entails both volatility in electoral outcomes and simple persistence of parties. Clearly the latter would not suffice, as there are parties that have never fielded winning candidates, but who have continued to enter each election, but their obstinacy little informs the debate. The last major definition is value, which we will evaluate in reference to, but not necessarily in agreement with, Hadenius's typology of party development, itself based on V.O. Key (Hadenius 2002, p. 8)1. Note, however, that he presents the criteria as informative with regard to political representation, and the extent to which this coincides with value is not immediately clear; as previously noted, we are separating democratic ideals from party consolidation. In particular, he concerns himself with the trade-off between independence from benefactors and having sufficient resources to engage the electorate. Of these, the latter clearly provides value, but the former is important only in assessing if and how a party is representative. He further argues that democratic internal procedures are vital, an aspect that potentially increases value, as he argues it will empower party activists to shape the platforms and themselves rise to prominence, thereby increasing the receptiveness of parties to the electoral demands, and providing avenues for smooth leadership transitions.

While the party system in Russia dates to social movements arising in the late 1980s, any discussion of trends can start no earlier than the adoption of the new constitution in 1993. The panel research by Colton and McFaul, summarized in Popular Choice and Managed Democracy (2003), starts with the 1995 election, sufficiently long ago to see trends. In any case, the chaos from 1993 to 1995 could do little more than accentuate the relative tranquility of today's party situation. The authors present very weak attachment to parties between the 1995 and 1999 Duma elections, in part exacerbated by the disappearance of some 1995 parties by 1999. Even among those voters with the opportunity to stick with their 1995 vote in 1999, only 35 percent voted for the party again, and after grouping similar parties into “party families”, only 11 percent stayed with a party in the same family (p. 41). In considering party stability, we look to the Duma, in part because the legislature is generally considered to most important influence on party development (Ishiyama and Kennedy 2001, p. 1181). Until the 1999 election, the party landscape was dominated by KPRF, a party that inherited partisans, but which could not, by virtue of Russia's recent past, gain a majority or the presidency. In 1995, four parties (LDPR, KPRF, Yabloko, NDR) entered the Duma on the list vote, and 21 others entered on the SMPD vote, in addition to 77 independents. In 1999, five parties crossed the five percent threshold (KPRF, Yabloko, Unity, OVR, SPS, LDPR), but only eight parties won SMPD seats and 114 independents won seats (CSPP/Levada 2005). Although the parties showed weakness in the districts, the party-list stability is remarkable, and even more so considering that the Unity/OVR split was essentially an artifact of the succession fight, and that SPS is the successor to Russia's Democratic Choice, which received a non-trivial 3.9% of the vote in 1995 (Colton and McFaul 2003, p. 44). The phenomenon of a “party of power”, although established in the 1993 and 1995 elections, failed to play a role in shaping the outcome until 1999 at the earliest, when of the two would-be insider parties, Unity prevailed over OVR. As these parties do not ideologically distinguish themselves, they shape the field most prominently by forcing other parties to win and consolidate their constituencies. This dynamic, perhaps at play in 1999, was the driving force from 1999 to 2003. With the formation of United Russia (Unity-Fatherland) from OVR and Unity in 2001, the dominance of the party of power was cemented. Putin maintained approval ratings ranging from 60-80 percent, and his party attracted enough floor-crossers in the Duma to create a strong majority with respectable party discipline. Looking beyond the Moscow power base, Putin's reforms of the Federation Council, new rules on governors, and enforcement of federal legal supremacy gave him a measure of control across the nation that Yeltsin never achieved. Although Putin has not managed to bring lasting reforms to social services, strong oil prices have provided revenues to offset his inaction. With the 2003 election, United Russia won 37.57 percent of the list vote and 102 SMPD seats, for 49.2 percent of the total seats in the Duma. Only three other parties reached the five percent cut-off, KPRF, LDPR, and Rodina, only eight others and 68 independents entered on the SMPD vote. On one hand, the results showed increased stability, as none of the 1999 major players disappeared, and the one new party, Rodina, is closely linked to United Russia. Hadenius, however, discriminates between persistence and volatility. In 2003, KPRF lost 12 percentage points, and both SPS and Yabloko slipped beneath five percent. Rather than a contraindicating consolidation, this is evidence of the consolidating pressure that results from the presence of a player as strong as United Russia. Specifically, Rodina is a leftist party that aims to present a social democratic alternative to the somewhat demonized and definitely geriatric KPRF, and Rodina can account for nine percentage points of KPRF's loss. The case of the liberals is again inflexibility; the combined list votes of SPS and Yabloko would have earned a place in the Duma, but at least Yabloko is strongly personalistic, making such pragmatic moves much more difficult.

In the wake of the 2003-2004 elections, and cognizant of Putin's two term limit, the pragmatic strategy for United Russia would be to consolidate their lead by strengthening the party as an organization that can continue to wield power after 2008. On May 18, 2005, Putin signed the Law on Elections of Deputies to the State Duma, which seems to set the stage for precisely that. Most significantly, it eliminates the SMPD portion of the election, instead allotting all 450 Duma seats by party list. From the previous five percent, the threshold for winning seats in the Duma is now seven percent (CSPP/Levada, http://www.russiavotes.org/electoralawchange3.htm). These two provisions, had they been in place in 2003, would have resulted in only four parties in the Duma. Along with the elimination of party blocs, and that only registered parties may put up candidates for any elected public office, these reforms are the legal basis for real and lasting consolidation of parties, at least from the perspective of elites.

The May reforms form the legal basis for a parliamentary democracy in the traditional sense, without the post-Soviet anomaly of SMPD/PR mixed elections, as seen in nearby Ukraine, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan (Ishiyama and Kennedy 2001, p. 1182). Giovanni Sartori argued that proportional representation systems tend to create ideological clarity along demographic lines, an effect no longer masked by the influx of non-party candidates from the SMPD elections. Taken together with the losses suffered by KPRF and the liberals in 2003, this should force both to consolidate their support; they need only win seven percent of the vote, but if they cannot win seven percent, they are completely disenfranchised. By eliminating the relatively diverse and uncontrollable SMPD vote, minor parties and independents are essentially eliminated from political discourse, and even party discipline will be improved; a deputy is entirely dependent on the party for a place on the party list, so his loyalty is not to a constituency, but to a party. While Putin and United Russia ostensibly fought for the reforms because they would “strengthen the political system”, political actions are usually self-interested, and United Russia may benefit significantly from the revised rules. By attaching party identifications to every candidate up for election, United Russia may benefit from extended synergy between regional elections and national elections, perhaps building voting patterns that can persist. If United Russia can put people into a situation where they develop strong party affiliations, the party is best served by doing so when it is the most widely supported party, thereby fixing the support of some portion of the supposedly floating voters. For a party that has based its entire image and campaign on a man due to leave office in 2008, any long-term benefit is valuable. This post-2008 uncertainty was clear in something of an alarmist piece in the March 21-27 issue of the popular magazine Ogonek which said, “And if revolution were to occur in Russia, it could be not “orange”. It could change colors: possibly into the previous red color, or into something else, darker. The mass forces can, from social discontent, disempower the regime, even as they empowered it” and, referring to the 2007-2008 elections, “this is the beginning of the fall of the system” (Burtin, et al. 2005). Short of revolution, it is quite possible that United Russia will split by 2007 as it seeks to find a successor to Putin, but its successor party or parties will certainly be significant in the upcoming elections. The newly fractured left, after Rodina started to bleed off KPRF support, may generate a left or center-left social democratic party.

Today, there is uncertainty, but there is stability. The combined effect of six years of reform has made another dark horse candidacy, like that of Putin, no longer feasible, so elites and ordinary citizens alike can develop strong opinions and perhaps loyalties. While the dynamics of United Russia's succession problem may make for another new party in 2007, they are unlikely to entirely destabilize the party system. The stability of parties for the past five years, and the exclusively party-driven political environment mandated by the May reforms leave no doubt that parties as political actors have found stability and value, and are thus consolidating. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the next decade of Russian politics will be the transition from party-in-government to party-in-the-people, but Russia has essentially accomplished the former, leaving little doubt that the latter is far behind.

  • Burtin, Aleksandr, Maya Kulikova, Vladlen Maksimov, Dmitri Sabov. (2005). “Nam sdelayut prezidenta: tri tsenarii dlya vyburov-2008”. Ogonek, March 21-27 2005. translation by author
  • Colton, Timothy J. and Michael McFaul. (2003). Popular choice and managed democracy, Washington: Brookings Institution Press.
  • Ishiyama, John T. and Ryan Kennedy. (2001). “Superpresidentialism and political party development in Russia, Ukraine, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan”. Europe-Asia Studies, 53(8):1177-1191.
  • Hadenius, Axel. (2002). “The development of political parties: Russia in perspective”. CERC Working Papers Series, 3.
  • RussiaVotes.org, Center for Studies in Public Policy, Levada Center.

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