A Decade of Russian Regional Democracy: Of the Governors, by the Governors, for the Governors?
In a recent seminar at the Kennan Institute, Andrew Konitzer-Smirnov, a Kennan Institute Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, examined Russian regional politics with a special emphasis on electoral accountability. He explained many of the current trends and dynamics surrounding the regional electoral reforms taking place in Russia today, and outlined several behavioral and institutional challenges facing Russian voters. Using evidence gathered from the past decade of Russia's regional executive elections, he demonstrated that, while Russian voters cast their votes in a way that promotes accountability, electoral institutions and processes are "effectively blocking the manifestation of this voting behavior in election outcomes."
Konitzer-Smirnov began with a brief explanation of the recent debate surrounding regional elections. He stated that proposals have ranged from the standardization of regional electoral laws to the elimination of regional executive elections altogether. Konitzer-Smirnov noted that there has been much discussion of individual, highly publicized scandals and less focus on overall electoral trends and that this situation provides rhetorical ammunition for opponents of regional executive elections. Fortunately, he contended, economic data and a sufficiently large set of regional elections allow researchers to better evaluate how well these elections are performing an accountability function.
According to Konitzer-Smirnov, there are several criteria that a polity must meet to achieve electoral accountability. First, voters must be able to assign responsibility for policy outcomes. Second, voters must be able to vote incumbents out of office and replace them with the candidates of their choice. Third, incumbents must have incentives to seek reelection. Finally, an opposition must be present to monitor politicians and inform citizens.
Konitzer-Smirnov explained that a multi-level government system presents a number of "behavioral" challenges to the promotion of accountability. He noted that voters might suffer from "federal confusion," or the inability to assign responsibility for outcomes to the appropriate levels of government. The problem may be compounded by the fact that voters may be influenced by the incumbent controlled media and lack the appropriate information to assign responsibility. Finally, he stated that voters may choose to focus on other issues rather than on incumbent performance.
He argued that, even if voters meet the established criteria and overcome behavioral challenges, there are also a number of potential barriers raised by election institutions and processes. Some of these include incumbent-friendly election laws making it easier for incumbents to divide the opposition and win with minimal levels of popular support. Other challenges include the lack of viable alternatives, election fraud, and various underhanded election tactics.
Konitzer-Smirnov finished by concluding that, despite their shortcomings, Russia's regional executive elections should remain in place. He suggested some means to promote accountability including the standardization of election laws and more clearly defined areas of policy responsibility. He contended that the establishment of clearer jurisdictional responsibility across levels of government would help eliminate much of the "buck passing" that is so prevalent in most regional election campaigns. Finally, Konitzer-Smirnov argued that the further development of civil society (particularly the diversification of media structures) and transformation of the existing political culture, while impossible to legislate, are absolutely critical steps toward regional-level democratization.