Friday, December 5, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Under Putin, ‘Gerrymandering’ Enters the Russian Vocabulary

Paul Goble


            Staunton, December 5 – The process by which a government draws the electoral map in such a way that the number of its opponents in parliament will be minimized, long known in the West as “gerrymandering,” has now come to Russia in a big way  and is being employed by Moscow for exactly the same purposes.


            But perhaps not unexpectedly, “dzherimendering” is being used more bluntly and brutally than in the West with the authorities announcing one map and then changing it at the last minute to keep any opposition groups from being able to decide whom to nominate or how best to compete against pro-government parties.


            On yesterday, journalist Ilya Karpyuk reports that Russia’s Central Electoral Commission has announced that it will draw up by next summer the map of the 225 single-member districts in the Russian Federation from which half of the next Duma will be elected in 2016 (


            According to Russian law, each district is supposed to contain roughly the same number of voters, which as of now would be approximately 498,000, but because each federal subject has to have at least one such district even if its population is much smaller than that. Thus, Chukotka with only 35,000 voters nonetheless gets a representative.


            Those with more get additional deputies or are combined with others, including voters from abroad, to determine the number, Karpyuk says, noting that “all these rules could be applied even without the Central Election Commission since all the necessary data are published in open sources (


            But he points out, “the work of the CEC does not consist in the composition of a simple electronic table.” Instead, it is directly involved in the drawing of electoral districts within regions, and it is there that “dzherimendering” really happens – and with little supervision from above despite the requirement that the Duma confirm the final map.


            “As a rule,” he says, “supporters of the opposition are one way or another grouped according to a geographical principle. In Moscow, for example, liberal parties and candidates always receive a higher percentage in the center, in the southwest along Lenin Avenue, and in the northwest along Leningrad Avenue.”


            Consequently, the CEC “needs either to include the maximum number of opposition voters in a minimum number of electoral districts so that only several unsuitable candidates will make it to parliament or ‘spread’ opposition voters among other districts so that they will not be able to secure a majority for their candidates.”


            “In fact,” Karpyuk says, “gerrymandering is a legalized administrative resource,” one in which the authorities can follow the law but nonetheless set things up in such a way that they will ensure that representatives of the party of power are re-elected and that those of the opposition have little chance to gain seats.


            And in exercising these “legal” rights, the authorities behave in ways that have largely been eliminated in other democracies where the power of the courts has set limits on gerrymandering activities. Thus, in Russia, officials announce one electoral map and then change it shortly before the voting.


            That happened in the run-up to elections for the Moscow City Duma, and it means that opposition groups were uncertain whom they should nominate and where they should make the greatest effort. Indeed, some opposition figures “explained their poor results” in those elections by saying that they “weren’t able to prepare for the campaign” because of these map changes.


            It cannot be excluded, some like Vadim Soloyev, a member of the KPRF central committee says, that the authorities will once again adopt a map they have no intention of using and then change it.  That is even more likely if the deteriorating Russian economy forces the government to call elections early.



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