Putin orders new system for Russian elections in Parliament

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MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a major change in parliamentary election rules, a move that could help solidify his power and influence toward the end of his current term and insulate him from dwindling public support for United Russia, the party that nominated him and now holds a Parliament majority.

At Mr. Putin's direction, half of the 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, would be filled using a proportional system based on votes for parties, with each party then filling its allotted seats. The other half would be filled by direct election of individual candidates, creating a potential opening for independent campaigns.

The new system, which the Central Election Commission is expected to unveil in the next several weeks, replaces a system of strict party-list voting. It would be the second major change to the parliamentary voting process in less than a decade and essentially amounts to a return to a system that had been in place until 2003. The proposal also comes just a year after allegations of widespread fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary elections set off a wave of huge Moscow street protests.

But while the prospect of individual candidacies suggests a liberalizing of a political system often criticized as heavily tilted in favor of Mr. Putin and the governing authorities, history shows that they can actually have the opposite effect. This is because individual candidates endorsed by the majority party tend to have a huge advantage in name recognition and resources in local races, and because candidates who run locally as independents can often be enticed to join the majority party when the new Parliament is formed, using perks offered by the presidential administration.

In neighboring Ukraine, adoption of a mixed electoral system such as the one Mr. Putin proposed helped President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions win more seats in elections this fall, despite public opinion polls -- and even election results -- that showed support for the party had dropped across the nation.

In 2007, under a system of proportional voting for party lists, the Party of Regions won 175 seats with 34.4 percent of the vote. In 2012, the Party of Regions won only 30 percent in proportional voting but now holds 209 seats, thanks to victories in individual districts by its own nominees or by independents who joined the faction later.

Under new laws that extended both the terms of Duma members and the president, Russia's next parliamentary election is scheduled for December 2016 and would be followed by a presidential election in March 2018.

Mr. Putin, in a speech to the Russian Parliament last month, described the proposed change as a continuation of liberalization efforts that began last year with an easing of restrictions on creating political parties. Critics of that process say it is now too easy to form a party, effectively splintering the opposition.

But election experts said there were reasons to be skeptical. Arkady Lubaryev, director of a project on developing Russian election law for Golos, the country's only independent election monitoring group, said the organization supported a mixed voting system, but not the one proposed by Mr. Putin.

"We stand for a mixed closed system similar to the system of elections used for the German Bundestag," Mr. Lubaryev said, meaning that each party would receive only as many seats as its proportion of the national vote. "But we are opposed to restoring the mixed open system, which was in effect before, because it allows United Russia -- and any party that has more than 30 percent support -- to receive overrepresentation."

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