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None-of-the-above box may be restored to Russia’s ballot papers soon

September 27, 2013, 14:01 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara

MOSCOW, September 27 (Itar-Tass) - The Russian authorities several years ago abolished the once very popular None-of-the-Above box from the ballot papers only to come up with an idea of restoring it now. Experts hope that this measure will not only increase voter turnout, but also help split the protest electorate still further.

Time is ripe for restoring the None-of-the-Above box to the ballot papers, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko said on Wednesday. In her opinion, the restoration of this option would help get a clearer idea of whether the people vote for this or that party, or just wish to drive the message home they would rather support anybody else but the authorities.” This will let the decision-makers analyse the situation and see how many people deny support to the parties participating in the elections and to adequately respond to these protests.

The chief of the Federal Council’s defence and security committee, Viktor Ozerov, of the Khabarovsk Territory, believes that the restoration of the None-of-the-Above box will improve the voter turnout and those who today stay away from the polling stations on the voting day will come at last to express their will. Also, the measure may encourage the political parties to draft platforms that will be of interest to many, and not just their permanent backers.

Matvienko’s idea has drawn a favourable response from the regional legislators. As the daily Kommersant has said, the None-of-the-Above box is seen as crucial for the people and quite safe for the ruling party by the speaker of the Chelyabinsk Legislative Assembly, Vladimir Myakush, speaker of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, Vyacheslav Makarov, deputy governor of the Nizhni Nobgorod Region, Sergei Potapov and speaker of the Ulyanovsk Region’s Legislative Assembly, Anatoly Bakayev.

The None-of-the-Above option (sometimes described as Against All) had existed in the ballot papers since 1993 to have been removed in 2006. As the authors of the initiative explained then that was done to reduce the likelihood of situations in which elections may be declared void and to rule out the need for calling re-elections, which would entail more budget spending.

The Opposition responded with angry protests. Restoring the None-of-the-Above graph to the ballot papers has been high on the list of demands at all mass protest rallies held ever since.

Another reason why the “against all” option was cancelled was the authorities’ fear it might be used as a tool for active boycott of the elections and for staging elections reruns over and over again, a co-chair of the movement Golos (meaning both “voice” and “vote” in Russian), Grigory Melkonyants told the Kommersant FM radio station in a commentary.

According to a Levada Centre opinion poll immediately following the presidential election in March last year, had the None-of-the-Above box been present on the ballot papers then, Vladimir Putin would have had no chance of emerging the winner in the first round, because he would have collected only 47% of the votes.

Many parties are divided over Matvienko’s initiative. The Communists believe that restoring the None-of-the-Above line to the ballot papers under the current voting system in some regions would play into the hands of United Russia alone. The Liberal Democrats argue that it is very wrong to change the election legislation to adjust it to the current realities so often, while A Just Russia welcomes the idea, but only on the condition the voter turnout threshold is back as well.

Matvienko’s idea looks not very inspiring to the head of the State Duma’s Committee Vladimir Pligin (of United Russia). “At the moment quite a few political parties are present in the political space,” Pligin said. “The preferences that the None-of-the-Above option accumulates may be distributed among the existing parties.”

The ruling party will shape its final opinion on the possibility of reforming the election system at its forthcoming congress, due in Moscow on October 6.

The leader of the Civil Platform, Mikhail Prokhorov, is quoted by the government-published daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta as saying he is certain that the people should be allowed to object to all of the proposed candidates. “I believe that restoring the None-of-the-Above box is a good idea. The people are entitled to having the right to choose and to say NO to all candidates participating in the race. This graph is also important because in case the candidate called Mr. None-of-the-Above gains a majority, it will look like a diagnosis for the authorities and the Opposition,” Prokhorov says in Facebook.

Experts believe that the latest initiative pursues two main goals - taking votes away from the radical Opposition and improving the turnout, thereby legitimating the victory of the ruling party.

The president of the National Strategy Institute, Mikhail Remizov, too, is certain that the measure is expected to strip the radicals of many votes and to water down protest voting.

His colleagues agree. “If one imagines that the task is to grab some of the votes that otherwise might be cast for a very noticeable and bright candidate or party that attracts all protesters, then the scheme is easy to understand,” says the political sciences department at the higher school of economics, Leonid Polyakov.

A senior lecturer at the applied political sciences department of the Higher School of Economics, Mark Urnov, believes that “the more people vote against all, the less votes go to the party that is in the lead in the election race.” Interviewed by ITAR-TASS, Urnov said “the restoration of the None-of-the-Above option would make sense in combination with a special clause stating that if the percentage of the votes cast against all reaches a certain very high value, the election shall be declared void.

“Otherwise discontent with the system will merely benefit the leading party, while all minor parties will stand to lose,” Urnov said.

The chief of the political consultancy Niccolo M, Igor Mintusov, on the contrary, believes that the None-of-the-Above graph will cause only a very insignificant effect on the election process, if at all. Mintusov told ITAR-TASS “such an option is not found in the ballot papers in most democracies around the world.”

“Restoring this voting option to the election legislation will be reasonable only in the sense it will ease popular anger over its cancellation,” he said.