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Russian parliamentary elections: PACE delegation told of improved access to media, but also concerns that the playing field is not level

Moscow, 11.11.2011 – More TV and radio debates, freer air-time and other campaigning possibilities for the seven parties participating in Russia’s parliamentary elections were cited as a significant change in the political process by most interlocutors who met the pre-electoral delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) currently in Moscow. But the delegation was also told that major concerns remain about a level playing field in the election campaign.

PACE’s five-member pre-electoral delegation was in Moscow at the invitation of the Speaker of the Russian Parliament from 8 to 11 November 2011. It met with representatives of the political parties running in these elections, leaders of civil society groups that had been denied registration as political parties, NGO and media representatives, and the head of the OSCE ODIHR election observation mission, as well as diplomats in Moscow. The delegation regrets that it did not meet with the Chair of the Central Electoral Commission, as a scheduled and confirmed meeting on Tuesday was cancelled at short notice with no reasons given.

Most interlocutors mentioned an improved media situation compared to the 2007 parliamentary elections, though some pointed out that this concerned only those political parties registered to participate in the forthcoming elections. Debates between candidates are taking place on major TV and radio channels, although mostly not at prime-time. Registered parties are also entitled to free air-time on an equal basis according to a fixed and transparent schedule. Furthermore, they can buy additional air-time, although several interlocutors told the delegation this possibility was only open to those with large financial resources. Parties not represented in the State Duma lack these resources, as they are not entitled to receive state subsidies, which are related to the number of votes won in earlier elections.

With seven political parties running, three of them not represented in the State Duma, there is a possibility of real competition, although most parties complain that the United Russia party has access to administrative resources and uses these to its political advantage. Nevertheless, the electorate will have a variety of choices on December 4.

The delegation was told by many interlocutors that several serious problems remain to be addressed. These include the cumbersome political party registration procedure, although PACE members were informed of a reduction in the number of signatures required for registration. Most interlocutors said they were in favour of more transparent and less obstructive registration rules.

Another problem is a high threshold for entering parliament. The delegation was told that a law lowering the threshold to 5 per cent has been passed by the State Duma, but that it will only be applied in 2016. It also learned of provisions to allocate seats to those parties receiving between 5 and 7 per cent of the vote.

Other problems include hurdles in the way of registration to run in the elections, and a ban on forming political blocs.

According to most interlocutors, with the exception of United Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party, parties other then the ruling party, in particular those not represented in the parliament, are at a heavy disadvantage. Furthermore, some interlocutors expressed serious concern that the election results could be manipulated.

A full-fledged, 40-member team of PACE observers will arrive in Moscow at the beginning of December to observe the vote in close co-operation with teams from OSCE ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. The PACE delegation will present its findings and recommendations to the Assembly in January 2012.

Vladimir Dronov, PACE Interparliamentary Co-operation and Election Observation, mobile: +33 (0)6 63 49 37 92.
Angus Macdonald, PACE Communication Division, mobile: +33 (0)6 30 49 68 20.