"Be careful what you wish for" is an apt adage for what is happening in Russia today.
The opposition in Russia clamored that the rules for party registration were too onerous and allowed the Kremlin to keep credible opposition parties off the ballot, while allowing hopelessly unappealing parties to get on the ballot.
Now a law has passed the Duma that will presumably make it a great deal easier for parties to get on the ballot. This is a part of a farewell gift from outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev who promised political reforms in response to the protests following the December elections to the Duma.
Having set the bar very high in terms of the number of signatures required to get on the ballot, the new law sets requirements on almost ground level by requiring only 500 signatures.
However - instead of being ecstatic, the opposition is irate. They believe that the new law is a deliberate attempt to discredit political reform by turning it into a clown show featuring a host of bizarre parties as well as straw parties. There is no provision in the new law allowing small parties to coalesce in an electoral alliance in order to get a better chance of entering the Duma.
The liberal opposition parties such as the People's Freedom Party, Parnas and Yabloko, that were blocked from contesting the elections this year, claimed that the regime has enough arrows left in its quiver to deny a place on the ballot to parties that it fears can become truly competitive. The Justice Ministry could rule, for example, that the party's platform conflicted with Russian legislation. Judges in Putin's Russia predictably rule in favor of the regime.
Some members of Putin's United Russia party were also critical of the new measure, because it could allow extremists and separatists to get on the ballot.
While attention has focused on the law liberalizing party registration, another law that is making its way through the Duma could prove more consequential and concerns the return of direct elections for governors.
As part of his centralization drive, Vladimir Putin replaced the system of electing governors with the presidential appointment of governors. The change was calculated to deny potential opponents a local power base. The new law tries to prevent the creation of local baronies by limiting governors to two terms.
Examples from other countries have shown that local or regional politics can provide a path for transitioning from one party hegemony to a more competitive system. A successful governor can be a more credible presidential candidate.