#8 - JRL 7171
May 7, 2003
ALEXANDER VESHNYAKOV: THE VOTER IS THE MAIN JUDGE
The elections are coming closer
Author: Vladimir Ignatov, Yuri Stroganov
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]
AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER VESHNYAKOV, CHAIRMAN OF THE CENTRAL ELECTORAL COMMISSION, ON HOW THE UPCOMING ELECTIONS WILL DIFFER FROM PREVIOUS ONES. HE ALSO DISCUSSES THE EXTENT TO WHICH RUSSIA'S PRESENT ELECTORAL SYSTEM COMPLIES WITH GLOBAL DEMOCRATIC STANDARDS.
Question: To what extent do you think the electoral system in Russia complies with the criteria of modern democracy?
Alexander Veshnyakov: In my viewpoint, it has been developing rapidly. According to assessments of competent foreign and domestic experts, the principal standards of Russia's electoral legislation are fully complying with the requirements of the existing international standards. Since December 2000 until now, the entire legal basis regulating elections in the Russian Federation, both on the federal and the regional scale, has been comprehensively updated. There was elaborated and came into effect six months ago a new version of the law on basic suffrage guarantees for citizens. A new order of forming electoral commissions was set. They've become more independent from local authorities. On the other hand, the new law will allow avoiding heated passions surrounding decisions of electoral commissions on canceling registration for candidates. Nowadays, only the court may pass similar verdicts. By the way, the courts are acting within the strict framework. They have no right to pass decisions later than five days before the voting.
In a word, the main goal of the reforms is to eliminate negative phenomena which we had registered during the previous elections. Radical enforcement of the role and responsibility of political parties during the elections is main mechanism.
Question: Could this be why the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) is proposing to make the party lists of Duma nominees "more transparent and open for the electorate?" What else, besides the biography should a voter know about a candidate? In Lithuanian, for instance, informing of a candidate's former cooperation with special services "of other states" is mandatory...
Alexander Veshnyakov: Each candidate, claiming to enter the power circles, in the party lists as well, must submit information about his incomes, property owned, banking accounts, convictions if any, nationality of any other state. All this is checked and made public. Nowadays, innauthenticity of information the candidates are submitting is not a plea for canceling the registration, but it is our intention to have similar facts published by the media agencies.
The 1999 elections proved how effective such publicity can be. In the end, the federal lists didn't include a single candidate with a criminal record. The point is that in our files on a candidate, everything is called by its real name. For those who have previous convictions, not only the article of the Criminal Code under which they were convicted is mentioned, but also the title of the article.
Question: Are Russian voters inactive in the elections because democracy has already been formed?
Alexander Veshnyakov: In a democracy, no one is lined up to vote. As worldwide practice shows, the countries having voter turnout of over 90% in elections have no freedom of choice. Most likely, these countries have either authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. There's another extreme - a symptom of democracy for third-world countries; this is when the electorate does not trust the government in general, and the elections in particular. Russia is going neither to the former nor the latter extreme. For instance, in the US, which we often use as a basis for comparison, voter turnout in federal elections is much lower than in Russia. In the US, voter turnout is about 50%, while in Russia it is over 60%. However, these figures certainly don't mean that Russia is facing no problems with voter turnout. Thus, in the recent gubernatorial elections in some regions the turnout has been around 35%.
Question: You've lately expressed an unordinary idea: to hold gubernatorial elections in Russia simultaneously. What is the attraction of the "bulk model" of the gubernatorial elections?
Alexander Veshnyakov: Nobody is proposing electing governors on the same very day. The matter concerns an opportunity of combining the timeframe for the federal and regional elections. As it happens now, in some regions the elections are held each 3-4 months within a year: first for local legislative bodies, followed by the federal Duma elections, the presidential elections and the gubernatorial elections.
The endless chain of the voting sessions finally brings disorganization of the electoral process, huge political and financial losses.
In compliance with our initiative, which has been fixed in the legislation by now, any elections of executive heads this coming year can be combined with the federal Duma elections. This is possible now, it only requires passing the corresponding law by a federal subject. I'm certain that a good half of the regions will avail themselves with this right. In my opinion, advisability of this step, both political and economic is evident.
Question: What are we to expect from the upcoming Duma elections?
Alexander Veshnyakov: We now have new laws and therefore the 2003 parliamentary elections will seriously differ from the previous elections. This time, the stakes are high. Except the parliamentary tribune, a party which passes into the Duma in the December elections will obtain a right for having its activities financed by the state to the amount proportional to the aggregate vote won. Plus, a political party represented at the Duma will be able to nominate its own candidates on any level of the elections, no collection of signatures or a bail required.
Moreover, we shouldn't discard the project under discussion, which envisages an opportunity for forming the Russian government by the parliamentary majority.
Therefore, I conclude that the parties which prove their consistency at the upcoming elections will determine Russia's policy within the next few years or, possibly, the decades. At the same time, the forces, which fail to make for the Duma, will go bankrupt, both politically and financially. They'll have to repay the debt for free broadcast, which costs millions of rubles to the state.
Question: How do you assess availability of a standard enabling suspending the broadcasting and cancellation of a licence for a media agency in the new bill for covering the elections in the media? Could this be a legislative tool to push the "fourth power?"
Alexander Veshnyakov: There's an opinion that the responsibility mechanisms adoption of which is proposed now don't allow the media agencies speaking anything at all about the candidates. I affirm this is not true. The basic rules of activities of media agencies before the elections which are now included in the law on the elections are not new. All of them had been used in the previous elections. The laws have merely been defined more precisely. The notions of information activity and propaganda activities have been determined. The law has it straightaway that the information activity is done freely, based on the principles of impartiality, authenticity and equality of candidates.
Question: What do you mean under equality? Will we, those who are working with the Trud newspaper, have to give 15 lines to each candidate or violate the law?
Alexander Veshnyakov: No, it's not compulsory. Nobody have an intention to count the lines. This standard is aimed to avoid any faults. Presidential elections in Russia are a bright example of that narrowness. Two candidates, in favor of whom millions of Russian citizens had repeatedly voted, come to a single city and meet with their electorate.
It turns out, however, that one candidate is discussed in all news programs day and night through, while the other candidate as if doesn't exist at all. Where is the equality of conditions, equality in covering the election campaigns?
We face the barefaced, specially organized propaganda in favor of one of the candidates.
In case similar faults in the press coverage of the election campaign take place, there will be every legal ground to take that to court, which will entail administrative penalties for the media agency which commits such violations. And if the court confirms the accusation, it will be necessary to pay a fine and make conclusions for the future, in order to avoid reiteration of similar faults afterwards. In their turn, the journalists always retain a right to appeal against an unfair, in their opinion, court decision in a court of higher instance.
Question: What is the cost of the elections?
Alexander Veshnyakov: The 2003 budget provides 3.5 billion rubles for the Duma elections. This money will be spent to organize the entire electoral process, ensure the work of the electoral commissions nationwide, and prepare information materials and installation the corresponding equipment.
Question: And campaign advertising as well?
Alexander Veshnyakov: No. It is paid as the expense of donations of those who support an individual candidate, an individual political party. In the 1999 elections, a party could spend 40 million rubles to finance its election campaign, whereas now the limit has been raised until 250 million rubles. In 1999, a candidate in a single-mandate district was allowed to spend 1 million rubles to self-advertising, while at the upcoming elections this amount will be 6 million rubles. The state is only indirectly involved in supporting the political parties and candidates: it gives free broadcasting time, sites at the state-owned printing mass media on equal terms.
The presidential elections may have a higher price. The 2003 budget envisages 4.9 billion rubles for them. The thing is that unlike the parliamentary elections, the presidential elections may have two rounds, which accounts for a bigger price subject to a possible repeated voting, which may not, however, be required. We'll get the answer on March 14, 2004.
Question: Believing the majority of political consultants, the presidential elections will enable saving some money. They predict Vladimir Putin's victory yet in the first round. In this connection, the corridors of power are full of rumors that constitutional mechanisms for reelecting president for the third term in office may appear. What is your attitude toward this idea?
Alexander Veshnyakov: I see no urgent necessity for changing the Constitution on any of the issues, the one you've mentioned included. The president has four years of authority. He has worked three of them so that, as the sociologists are saying now, his popularity rating hasn't declined a jot. Why should a successful president invent any amendments for the Constitution if he has every chance to use a standard democratic principle - nominate his candidacy for the second term in office? The Russian Constitution envisages an opportunity of electing for two consecutive terms in office at most. This restriction is quite easily explainable for the democratic countries.
Question: Two consecutive terms in office at most. However, it means an opportunity of running for presidency after another term in office passes?
Alexander Veshnyakov: The Constitution doesn't prohibit that...
(Translated by Andrei Ryabochkin)