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Putin's Pointers for U.S. Democracy

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It may seem funny to Americans when the rulers of Russia speak in condescending terms about the workings of U.S. democracy. Many laughed along when Hillary Clinton joked that President Vladimir Putin's ability to "stand up and say 'I will be your next president'" had "a certain attraction to it." Yet recent criticisms of the U.S. system by Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov could be food for thought.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

In a recent interview with the German tabloid Bild, Putin argued that democracy couldn't follow the same rules everywhere:

There can be no identical cliches in democracy -- be it American, European (German), Russian or Indian. Do you know that twice in American history the President was elected by the majority of delegates representing the minority of voters? Does it mean the absence of democracy? Of course not. But it is not the only or the most important problem. One of the European leaders once told me: 'In the United States it is impossible to run for presidency without a few billion dollars in your pocket.'

Putin, who prided himself on his mastery of detail, has grown more careless, and volunteer fact-checkers in the media and on social networks now follow up his major speeches with long lists of his mistakes. He made some errors in the Bild interview: There were in fact four cases of a candidate losing the popular vote but winning the U.S. presidency. Three incidents -- involving John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin Harrison -- took place in the 19th century. The fourth, famously, was George W. Bush in 2000.

And the Electoral College itself has been a source of friction in U.S. politics since the beginning of the republic, largely because it gives disproportionate power to small states. Even so, Russia might benefit by adopting a similar system. In recent years, the upper house of parliament, which was supposed to ensure that regions were represented, has increasingly yielded power to the president and the lower chamber of parliament, in which the big cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, hold outsize influence. As a result, even if elections were fairly contested, Russia wouldn't be a genuine federation like the U.S. or even Germany, where federal states are weaker but still have some power. As Russia's economic problems mount, there is an increasing danger of separatism that could eventually threaten the country's unity.

Putin's second criticism, concerning the huge expense of running in high-level U.S. elections, has some validity and is a matter of concern to Americans themselves. For 2012, the most expensive election in history, Barack Obama spent $985.7 million and Mitt Romney shelled out $992 million. Each vote cost Obama almost $15, and Romney more than $16.

By contrast, Putin won the 2012 presidential election in Russia spending only spent 30 cents per vote. And even his billionaire competitor Mikhail Prokhorov only paid $2 per ballot. Obviously, recent Russian elections are no exemplar and raise suspicions of being rigged, but U.S. political spending is very high by any standard. Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party spent 151.4 million euros ($165.9 million at today's exchange rate) in 2013, the year of the latest German federal election, in which CDU came in first. And the cost of U.S. presidential campaigns is showing no signing of slowing. Some analysts predict that more than $5 billion will be spent on the 2016 race, at least twice the amount spent for 2012. 

It was Lavrov's critique of the U.S. system that may deserve the most attention, however. In late December, he said elections are too frequent. "It often happens," the Russian foreign minister explained, "that the most important global problems become hostage to the electoral considerations of the governing establishment in the U.S., which only thinks about making timely moves on the international stage to win additional points for its party's candidates."

It's not just that members of the U.S. House of Representatives have to stand for re-election every two years, which means they are campaigning more or less all the time. Presidential campaigns have tended to start earlier and earlier. This tires voters and forces politicians to have an eye on the polls and generally spend less time doing what they are elected to do.

Russia extended its presidential term from four to six years and the parliamentary one from four to five years in 2008, under President Dmitri Medvedev. Thanks to a provision in the Russian Constitution that allows a president to serve more than two terms so long as the third isn't consecutive to the first two, Putin has been eligible to serve a total of 12 years so far and faces the next election only in 2018. That's a problem because two more years with him at the helm are likely to be damaging to Russia's economy. The U.S., however, with its hotly contested elections and the requirement that a president serve only two terms, might actually benefit from less frequent elections, achieving higher voter engagement and giving politicians more time to pursue tasks for which they've spent a lifetime preparing.

It may seem ridiculous that authoritarian rulers in Moscow feel comfortable criticizing a system that gives much more say to voters than theirs. They certainly aren't authorities on the workings of democracy, and their understanding of the flaws of the U.S. system is rather superficial. Yet the U.S. system is far from perfect, and its rigidity is exacerbating its problems. Putin's point is that he's unwilling to accept U.S. advice on democracy. A democratic nation, though, ought to listen to criticism and suggestions even from unlikely sources.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net