Elections Against the Crimea Background: The 2016-2018 Electoral Cycle and Prospects of Political Transition
Author: Valery Fedorov (ed.), Irina Trofimova
Source: Social Sciences, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 150-154
DOI (Russian): 10.31857/S013216250004974-4
DOI (English): http://dx.doi.org/10.21557/SSC.58131364
I. Trofimova, D. Sc. (Political Science), leading researcher, Institute of Sociology,
Federal Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
E-mail: email@example.com. This review was first published in Russian in the journal Sotsiologicheskiye issledovaniya (Sociological Studies. 2019. No. 5, pp. 171-174.
Parliamentary and presidential elections are the highest points of a political cycle. Until recently, they were associated, in the first place, with the fundamentals of democracy and perceived as a smoothly functioning machine the mechanism of which guaranteed convincing and legitimate results. The idea of democratic elections looked especially attractive to the former socialist countries because it involved their populations into socio-political life and ensured democratic transit. Meanwhile, both “old” and “new” democracies were growing increasingly aware of globalization of politics, plummeting confidence in representative institutions, transformation of group, including party, identities and the fast spread of information and communication technologies [2; 1; 7; 3]. The far from simple interactions of these processes brought unexpected results. While democracy was and remains the most attractive form of governance, in the last decade the number of those who would like to “have a strong leader” (see ) has increased. This paradox demanded more attention to the socio-psychological, behavioral and communicative aspects of electoral processes while the institutional and normative studies were mainly interested in the vector of the ongoing changes.
The reviewed collective monograph is an example of the use of diverse and rivaling (according to the authors) approaches that are better defined as mutually complementary in view of the need to demonstrate the far from simple socio-political context of elections. The events of March 2014 in Crimea are a metaphor of sorts for the changes unfolding in Russian society. According to different sources, from 80 to 90% of Russians still support the reunification of Crimea with Russia despite the lower level of life, their rejection of the reforms that followed the elections and the mounting anxiety about the future. It is impossible to say today how these events will be assessed in future yet the authors’ attention to them has confirmed that the turning points in the life of society not only identify the stages of social development but also differentiate the public sphere. They are the models that make analysis of the current and forecasting the future situation possible (see, for example, ).
The first part of the monograph entitled Political Sociology of Elections in Russia deals directly with elections. The analysis of the previous political cycles (2007-2008 and 2011-2012) helps understand the specifics of Russian politics and the emerging trends of the development of electoral institutions. This refers, first and foremost, to the expansion of state in the public space. The election campaigns are remembered not so much by the competing party programs but by the perfection of the technologies of building up public demand and handling trust in institutions. Society accepted the idea of political stability that allowed power unable to cope with technological backwardness, growing regional and social inequality, corrupt bureaucracy and other problems that intensified in the course of time to redirect popular discontent and discredit political opposition.
This supplied elections with political specialization of sorts. The authors have written that parliamentary elections are steered at political consensus while the main aim of the presidential elections is conflict-free inheritance of power or its transfer (p. 15). The fact that 84% of Russians attach “very greater importance” to presidential elections and 51% to parliamentary elections means that presidential elections are of signal importance for the country’s future. The same applies to the level of public confidence in the president, the parliament and political parties. The biggest discrepancy was registered in the fall of 2014 when 78% said that they trusted the president; 46%, the State Duma while 17% trusted political parties . The representative institutes of power never enjoyed high level of public confidence while the level of trust in the president has become one of the key indices of social health in Russia. On the whole, these results revealed a much lower level of legitimacy of the party system and a wide gap between them and the electorate. This became especially obvious in the election results produced by the “sophisticated population” of the capitals and big cities. The parties that in 2016 overcame the 5% barrier represent less than half of the electorate of Russia and a quarter of voters in Moscow and St. Petersburg (where the results were two-times lower than five years before) (pp. 51-52).
The ideological content of elections has become highly important; the authors have discussed it in its association with not so much party doctrines as the so-called post-Crimea consensus as an axiological interpretation of sorts of the real state of Russian society. This has its explanations and theoretical prerequisites. The authors have pointed to the somewhat diluted “big” and the appearance of “small” ideologies that bring to the surface the interests of small, including radically minded, groups that appeal to emotions rather than to critical reasoning of their audiences [6; 4; 9]. On the one hand, this makes it harder to elaborate a national idea and consolidate society; on other, it leaves a chance to squeeze between different contexts and alignments of forces at each given moment. This crops up in different practices ranging from combinations of ideologically opposite initiatives to a reverse continuity of adopted decisions. The pension reform of 2018 is the pertinent example.
The authors have provided a complete picture of these trends by concentrating at the problems of consolidation/polarization, stagnation/development, de-ideologization/re-ideologization of Russian society. When dealing with the attitude to elections, to President Vladimir Putin and possible changes and reforms the authors identify the lines of ideological and political demarcation; when dealing with society as a whole the authors point to flabbiness of party doctrines, a very contradictory nature of values, ambivalence of ideological and party self-identification and weakness of ideological splits (pp. 133-135). This speaks of Russian politics as vague and discrete which suggests that the country needs a “new political system,” a new institute of political parties and, therefore, ideological and axiological reformatting of the field of political parties, internal structuring of the so-called Putin majority and an appearance of a new cohort of young politicians (pp. 147-148). This conclusion stems from the authors’ clear understanding of the specifics of the concrete situation yet, it seems, that they underestimate the impact of external (in relation to the election system) factors such as global politics, changing social structures, cultural dynamics, migration processes, etc. The prospects of digitalization of public policy (network platforms, script algorithms, blockchains, artificial intelligence, etc.) should be assessed. A new political proto-culture that will arrive at a new content of the old concepts—elections, freedom, democracy, power, society, the state, etc.—is taking shape.
The second and third parts of the monograph offer an analysis of Russia’s political future. The readers will be probably attracted by the second part that tells the history of the development of sociological methods of political forecasting and assesses their use during the 2016-2018 elections. The authors have pointed out that the cognitive and affective components and the degree of their coordination should be taken into account in the light of the widely used populist slogans that address emotions rather than minds of the electorate. This means that the candidate or the party that offers clearer images congruent to and harmonized with the perception at the rational and instinctive levels stands a good chance of winning .
When assessing the future the authors deemed it necessary to point out that the elections of 2016-2018 did not become the frontier in the full sense of the word. They were “intermediate elections” that did not sum up but started a long transitory period that would begin when Putin’s presidential term ended in 2024 (p. 262). Archaization of the party system, the declining trust in the representative institutions and “Operation Successor” in the course of which it will be necessary to assess and harmonize practically all interests, contradictions and conflicts that exist in Russian society are among the greatest challenges and risks of the transitory period. The authors presupposed two possible variants of the evolution of the Russian political system: either party or revived personal-bureaucratic authoritarianism. The second variant that has been already developed looks most probable. In an absence of the national idea and the desire of the elite to set up a contemporary party system excludes the movement in the first direction (pp. 314-315).
The authors have pointed out that representative power will find itself on the losing side while the classical functions of political parties—consolidation and articulation of the interests of their electorates—will be transferred to the institutions engaged in public opinion studies through public opinion polls, assessments of the quality of state and municipal services, etc. (pp. 326-327). The parliamentary institutions will be forced to look for and find new means and methods of functioning, readjust their accents, find new means of communication with the electorate. So far it is not clear how much time it will take, yet the trend has been correctly identified. This is confirmed by the development of alternative representative structures in the form of expert clubs of all sorts (Izborsk, Stolypin, Valdai, and others) and forums (Gaidar, Delovaya Rossia, etc.) whose activities are associated with specific ideological trends.
On the whole, one can agree with the authors that the country has acquired a certain optimum within which power regularly and purposefully ask society to confirm its legitimacy within its responsibilities in a wide context of important issues (p. 322). Further movement along these lines in the conditions of political stability will be probably accompanied by the further convergence of democratic and authoritarian institutions and practices and a gradual transfer of Russia’s political system to a new quality.
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