President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Dear friends,
Over the past two years, we have been gradually implementing our programme to transform the Russian political system. The goals of this transformation are clear; I have talked about them repeatedly.
What do we want to achieve? We simply want to make our political system more fair, more flexible, more dynamic, and more open to renewal and development. It must enjoy the confidence of our electorate. It is no secret that for some time now signs of stagnation have begun to appear in our political life and stability has threatened to turn into stagnation. And such stagnation is equally damaging for both the ruling party and opposition forces. If the opposition has no chance at all of winning a fair fight it degrades and becomes marginal. If the ruling party never loses a single election, it is just coasting. Ultimately, it too degrades, like any living organism which remains static.
For these reasons it has become necessary to raise the degree of political competition.
But our main task, the task of any democracy, is to improve the quality of popular representation, make sure that the political majority is not just static, or rather that it does not become a majority consisting of actors and dummies. The task is to make sure that the ruling party has both rights and responsibilities, and does not simply act as a supplement to executive power, that it plays a full part in shaping this very executive power. This is not required merely for the ruling party to feel good about itself. A party is a means, a political tool for ensuring popular representation. Every party represents its electorate, but in the case of a ruling party, it represents the majority of voters, hence the exercise of their rights and respect for their opinions is a fundamental principle of democracy.
”Whatever its specifics, a political system must be so designed that the views of all, including the very smallest social groups, can be heard and taken into account. Ideally, the voice of every single person should be heard.“
No less important – and even more difficult – is the task of ensuring the rights of minorities. This is another fundamental democratic principle. Whatever its specifics, a political system must be so designed that the views of all, including the very smallest social groups, can be heard and taken into account. Ideally, the voice of every single person should be heard. In this regard the system must be transparent, responsive to everybody. Everyone should know that he or she has kindred spirits in representative bodies. This, by the way, is the essence of representative democracy, when someone represents the interests of a significant number of people. There are people with similar beliefs, views, and interests; there are those who are not indifferent to what happens. So, these minority representatives have the opportunity to criticize the ruling majority, convey the opinions and suggestions of minorities to the officials and to the public.
Finally, I believe that political reforms should not result in chaos and the paralysis of democratic institutions; as I have stressed on numerous occasions, they must strengthen, not destroy, democracy. Therefore in the article Go Russia!, which I wrote last year, I described the method and style of these reforms: reforms must be gradual, but steady.
Today I can say that over the past two years we have gradually – but nevertheless steadily – advanced towards that goal. As I see it, we have made decent progress.
At the beginning of the current autumn session of the State Duma, we finally completed the adoption of a package of bills that I submitted to the Duma in 2009 and, accordingly, in 2010. I explained the need for such laws in my addresses to the Federal Assembly. In 2009, laws which provided for major amendments to multiparty electoral systems on a national scale, at the federal level, entered into force. This year, similar changes were extended to the regional level.
I have talked about this so I will not bore you by listing all the laws we have adopted, even though it is interesting from a professional point of view. There are many of them and their names are quite cumbersome, but their essence – or as lawyers say, their subject matter – should be clear to every voter and citizen.
Let me list the key things.
The first thing we did was minimise the risks of election manipulation. During elections fraud is not permissible and we understand that. To this end we normalised early voting procedures and the use of absentee ballots (representatives of our opposition parties repeatedly drew my attention to the subject); for such [illegal] manipulations with absentee ballots criminal penalties have been introduced. The most flagrant violations occurred in this very field.
”Political reforms should not result in chaos and the paralysis of democratic institutions; they must strengthen, not destroy, democracy. Reforms must be gradual, but steady.“
Besides, we reduced the human factor in vote counting, and we will reduce it further. Already this year, electronic devices will be installed in approximately five percent of polling locations (it is an expensive undertaking), by 2012 the figure will be 15 percent and in 2015, 100 percent – but it will bring our electoral system up-to-date. The result of our efforts is worth the money spent. I hope that, ultimately, all taxpayers will appreciate this.
Second. All parties are now guaranteed equal access to state-run media at both the federal and regional levels, which was another regular request to me by representatives of opposition parties. Electoral commissions must monitor the implementation of these guarantees. More so, equality should not be a mere declaration, as it used to be, but real, as measured in hours, minutes and even seconds of airtime. Parties should also benefit from equal rights to use various premises for meetings and campaigning. These rights have also been much debated.
Third. Parties that win majority in regional parliaments now have the exclusive right to propose candidates for governors – that is, for heads of regions, territories or republics – to the President. In this way, the majority of the electorate has the opportunity to participate in the formation of executive power in its region via the party it supports. Ultimately, it is the party for which you vote that proposes a gubernatorial candidates to the President. Therefore the rights of the majority of the population have received concrete substance, consisting in the right to form local executive authorities.
Fourth. A number of measures to protect minority rights have been taken too. In addition to the equal media access that I just mentioned, the opposition is guaranteed certain senior positions in regional parliaments. The number of signatures of party supporters required for registering to participate in elections has been reduced.
In practice, the threshold for allowing party representatives into all levels of parliament has been lowered to five percent. In general votes should not be wasted – those parties who scored more than five but less than seven percent must be represented. And we shall not stop there but rather continue to improve this institution and expand these opportunities.
Fifth. Our regions were ordered to harmonise the proportional numbers of their representative bodies, because in Russia one region, a small region for example, might have one deputy representing 10,000 people while in another region one deputy represents 300,000 voters. This is not proportional. In addition, too many deputies are too expensive for local budgets. But too few deputies means that it is very difficult to take into account the different views of voters. I hope that we have found a balance at present.
We changed the principles of regional representation in the Federation Council. Now a member of the upper house must be a deputy who has been elected to regional or local bodies, in other words, a member of our upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, must be a person elected by local residents who know who he is, know him well, while he, in turn, knows their needs and their problems.
I hope that our political system has been improved quite significantly as a result of these adjustments. I am absolutely sure that it has become more open and flexible because of them. Ultimately, it has also become more fair. Regional elections that were held in October proved that complaints were far less than, say, six months ago. Both the public and opposition parties were more composed and calmer in their evaluation of the election results.
Of course we heard some criticisms and that’s fine, it’s as it should be. Still, there was less criticism and this is encouraging.
And one more point I made not long ago. Our democracy is imperfect and we are absolutely aware of this. But we are still at the beginning of the road. The most important thing is that we are not standing still: we are going forward.