WHY IS RUSSIA REFORMING ITS ELECTORAL SYSTEM?

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yuri Filippov).

Russia's electoral system is going to be radically transformed in the next few months. President Vladimir Putin outlined the reform's blueprint in September, while the other day the Central Election Commission's Chairman, Alexander Veshnyakov, said that his commission was completing work on a bill on State Duma elections and would soon put it before the president for him to submit it officially for parliamentary debate.

The crux of the reform is that all 450 deputies of the State Duma (the lower house of Russia's parliament) will be elected by party lists alone, i.e. on a proportional representation basis. Since 1993, there have been four Duma elections on a mixed, proportional - single-mandate system, with 225 deputies elected from party and bloc lists, and the other 225 deputies from election returns in single-mandate constituencies.

Why is the reform being carried out now, and for what purpose? Many people in Russia seem to have an answer to this question today. President Putin has supplied his own. "Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has been looking for the most acceptable forms of organizing society and the state," he says. From this standpoint, the changes to electoral legislation mean an attempt to make the political system more efficient, thereby corresponding to the country's present requirements better.

What was wrong with the old system? The point is that the first lower house of parliament was elected at a time when political idealism reigned supreme in Russian minds, or to be more precise, there was no knowledge or understanding of the laws of political reality. The prevailing mood in society was intuitive faith that every deputy without exception had received a calling to draft and adopt laws benefiting society, and his or her free time would be spent finding new ways to look after the interests of millions of ordinary voters.

Ten years have now passed, and not a trace of that faith is left. Russians have come to see that formal representation from a region in the Duma and the protection of the interests of that region's voters are poles apart, and occasionally are entirely unconnected. Polls conducted by the independent Public Opinion fund have shown that the State Duma is perhaps the least trusted institution.

This is not surprising. In all these years, a deputy mandate from a single-mandate election district has offered broad opportunities to a popularly elected representative in mainstream politics and big business, but has failed to make him responsible to the electorate. Even if many deputies initially sought to pursue lofty public ideals, the temptation of money and power quickly discouraged them from lawmaking, which soon became too much like dull and senseless routine.

The protection of voter's interests usually took the back seat. "It is sometimes good to meet voters personally, to learn of their needs and worries," a single-mandate constituency deputy once joked. "Especially if the name of that voter is Deripaska, Potanin, Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, Abramovich or another oligarch."

The result of such meetings was that the Duma approved huge tax loopholes, which meant billions of dollars from Russian exports, mainly raw materials, could be channeled past the state budget into offshore zones every year. This was an era when the money flowing out of Russia equaled half of the country's budget, and the average pension fell far short of even the very modest subsistence level.

An extraordinary incident occurred in the mid-nineties when Ivan Rybkin was State Duma speaker. Single-mandate deputies for some reason decided that the successful development of sports and physical education in the country depended directly on granting former athletes, who included Olympic champions and world record-holders grouped in the National Sport Federation, tax breaks for importing alcohol and tobacco into Russia. Naturally, the trainloads of vodka that arrived in the country following the adoption of the relevant law did nothing to improve the nation's health, but they did help many deputies line their pockets and experience an inexpressible sense of a job well done.

Of course, it is much more boring to meet with old pensioners or teachers and doctors demanding higher salaries than to conduct what in Russia was described as "purely specific conversations" with oligarchs about tax preferences and how this or that deputy could benefit from adopting them.

By the late 1990s, it had become clear to everyone that the system had to go.

Even in December 1999, when the pro-Putin United Russia won the State Duma elections, many experts said that the practice of "wild lobbying" in Russia's parliament would soon be ended. But it seems they were too hasty in their judgments. It took the president and the party that backed him almost another four years to ensure that the law-adopting procedure became more transparent and bills were subject to anti-corruption checks.

In the 2003 elections, Russia's "wild lobbyists" suffered a crushing defeat. United Russia gained a constitutional majority of 300 deputies, and the subsequent reform of the government and presidential administration made it possible to place the procedure for drafting and passing laws in Russia under strict state control.

The problem, however, is to make these changes permanent, and independent of Kremlin personalities. The main aim of the state is to have laws adopted in the interests of the majority of Russian voters, rather than at the bidding of all sorts of "oligarchs." One task of the electoral reform, says State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, is "to ensure close ties between deputies and voters in the regions, to make a deputy mandate dependent upon the results of a deputy's work."

The reform's authors take the view that the principal agency controlling parliamentary work should be the victorious political parties in the elections, rather than raw materials financial and industrial groups, as was formerly the case.

Indeed, this scheme for organizing interaction between society and the state, if we recall President Putin's words quoted above, looks more acceptable and effective for today's Russia, which is still engaged in "soul-searching", in a quest for its own style and way of life in the contemporary world.

The new electoral system should be on the statute books by spring 2005. This means that the next parliamentary elections in 2007 will be held under the new rules, and the "wild lobbying" of the 1990s will become a thing of the distant past.

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