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Elites Oppose the Development of Political Parties (Russia)

  Political parties are institutionalised when they have an organization that is separate from the personal links of their leaders, and when their elected members form a distinct and coherent group in the legislature. The level of institutionalisation is low in many poor countries. This is an obstacle to effective electoral democracy. Only when parties are stable and predictable in terms of membership and policy positions can voters make informed choices, and have some confidence that their votes on election day will influence the composition, attitudes and policies of governments over the next few years.

After the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1989, the level of institutionalisation of political parties in Russia has been low. However, Kathryn Stoner-Weiss shows that it has been increasing steadily, at national level, over the 1990s. The State Duma is steadily coming to comprise distinct groupings of people who have relatively consistent attitudes to policy issues and contest national elections on some kind of programmatic basis. Yet at regional level the picture is very different. Here political parties play a tiny role. Elections are contested and won by individuals, and legislative majorities are constructed on an issue-by-issue basis. Voters have very little scope to influence policy.

Why this difference? Because regional elites want things this way. They have done very well out of the transition from Communist rule. They have acquired, from the public realm, assets and sources of income that would be threatened by party-based electoral competition. Political parties would be more likely to raise these as policy issues, and to bring more scrutiny, controversy, accountability and transparency. Stoner-Weiss cites one regional governor: "parties cause problems. Instead, I call our legislature the party of business".

How do regional elites manage to exclude parties from the electoral arena? Above all, by insisting on using first-past-the-post electoral systems rather than the proportional representation (PR) systems which are needed to encourage the development of fragile political parties. Parties are significant actors where PR systems are employed: at national level and in a handful of regions. Regional elites also have a variety of other instruments they can use to suppress nascent political parties. They control the media, and thus the ways in which candidates are presented to the public. They are the sole source of campaign funding. And they appoint the electoral commissions that rule who is eligible to stand for election.

Significance?

We tend to believe that the development of political parties reflects underlying 'facts' about society, economy and culture. To the extent that there are relatively broad and clear cleavages within society, programmatic, institutionalised political parties are likely to develop (in democracies). That is broadly true. However, Stoner-Weiss reminds us that (a) specific legal and institutional arrangements can also have a great influence on the development of political parties and (b) elites may in some circumstances use these legal and institutional instruments to stunt the development of parties.

Source: Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, 'The Limited Reach of Russia's Party System: Underinstitutionalization in Dual Transitions', Politics and Society, Volume 29, Number 3, September 2001, pp. 385-414.
Politics and Society is published quarterly by Sage (www.sagepub.com).

Keywords: political parties, institutionalisation, Russia, elites.

Commentator: Mick Moore, IDS (November 2001).

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