Vienna, June 17 – Concerned that opposition parties could win direction elections for mayors and thereby make those city heads more legitimate and influential, United Russia activists have begun to move “quietly and ‘from below’” to eliminate such votes, according to an analysis of recent developments at a political level many in Moscow often ignore.
In an article in “Nasha Versiya” this week, Igor Dmitriyev notes that “over the course of a short time, the direct election of mayors has been replaced by a system in which they are chosen by local deputies in “more than a third of all the municipal formations of Russia” (versia.ru/articles/2010/jun/16/otmena_vyborov_merov).
Among the cities where this has taken place, he points out, are Ulyanovsk, Penza, Saratov, Velikiy Novgorod, Chelyabinsk, Derbent, Blagoveshchensk, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Kursk and Kazan. And soon, Volgograd, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Yekaterinburg, and all the cities in the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District will make this change as well.
“According to many experts, Dmitriyev says, “the elimination everywhere of elections of mayors is connected with the fact that in them ever more often win representatives of the opposition,” a development United Russia activists have decided to address “by the traditional method of our country: simply eliminate direct elections of mayors” altogether.
But instead of doing this in one fell swoop by means of the adoption of a new federal law, a tactic almost certain to attract attention in the central and international media and possibly provoke demonstrations by the opposition, the “Nasha Versiya” analyst observes, the ruling party is proceeding “quietly” and “from below.”
After Putin made the heads of the federal subjects appointed rather than elected positions, many began to think about the possibility that Moscow would do away with elections for generally. In 2006, the Duma committee on local government considered a measure that would have given federal subject heads the right to decide how to choose the heads of cities.
But that idea was shelved for the time being when United Russia decided that it needed the help of the mayors in the parliamentary and ultimately presidential elections. But in the years since that time, the party of power has done sufficiently of well in those votes that many assumed there was no problem for it at any level.
However, a series of elections for mayors in cities like Irkutsk showed that the population was quite prepared to vote for opposition figures, often overwhelmingly. And as a result, the issue of eliminating elections at that level in order to ensure United Russia complete control has arisen again.
If United Russia were a normal political party, accustomed to engaging in “sharp political competition with the opposition,” it might have changed its positions or fielded better candidates, Dmitriyev says, “but the domestic bureaucracy has not become accustomed to normal inter-party struggle.”
And consequently, United Russia “decided to achieve victory by the more traditional means in our country: simply by doing away with direct popular mayoral elections, having handed them over to the local parliament,” a body that the bureaucracy finds it far easier to control.
But because the Russian Constitution mandates elected popularly-elected mayors and because Russia is a signatory to the European Charter on Local Governance, the powers that be in Moscow had to come up with a more complicated strategy, one that would ensure that the head of the city was in fact elected by the people at some point.
The way the powers have done that, Dmitriyev says, is to divide the top post in two, with the head of the city being the chairman of the city council (and hence an elected official) and the city manager, an appointed position, having the real day-to-day power over the city and especially its finances.
But even this is too much for many Russians. Polls show that most Russians want an elected mayor in their cities, some have protested against the shift, and experts on local governance say the new system will reduce still further any role for the people while ensuring the dominance and control of United Russian functionaries over everything.