Monday, February 21, 2011

Rahm: Yeltsin or Putin?

Our students recently asked what difference it makes if Rahm Emanuel wins the Chicago mayoral election in tomorrow’s first round of voting or in April’s second round.

We tried to answer with a rhetorical question invoking Russian politics: Does Emanuel want to be known as Yeltsin or Putin?

On the surface, the politics of Russia and Chicago would seem to have little in common beyond the importance of efficient snow removal. But the electoral system for Chicago’s mayor holds the distinction as being the same type of system used to elect Russian presidents and many other international chief executives.

Voters in France and Iran also elect their presidents through this two round, non-partisan system where multiple candidates from a variety of political factions battle in the first round. Any candidate who wins a majority (50% plus 1 vote) in this first round automatically captures the executive title. But if no candidate secures an electoral majority in Round 1, the top two vote getters square off in a second round of balloting. The winner of this final match up is guaranteed a majority of the vote.

Some have suggested this type of electoral system as the best replacement for our Electoral College. Instead of indirectly electing our president through the electors of the 50 states, citizens could directly elect a Presidential winner with a majority of the voters’ support. Swing states would become a forgotten buzzword as candidates courted the votes from the nation’s population centers, like Chicagoland, that are so often ignored by presidential election strategists.

French presidential elections characterize how this system was intended to work, where more than a dozen presidential candidates typically enter the first round of balloting. Voter turnout averages an astounding 80% in this method as French citizens from all ideologies can clearly identify with at least one of the candidates from across the political spectrum.

Round 2 in France functions the same way James Madison depicted a large republic working when he wrote Federalist 10. The top two contenders must campaign beyond the base factions that supported them in Round 1 in order to gain the majority of support. This helps build a political culture where elections become a way to galvanize connections between otherwise diverse groups.

In reality, Chicago’s mayoral elections resemble Russia and Iran much more than the ideals of France.

Since the introduction of the non-partisan election in 1999, Richard Daley dominated each of his three campaigns in this system and never experienced a second round of mayoral balloting. Similarly, Iranian presidential elections have never gone to the second round, and Russian presidential candidates have only battled onto a second round once.

1996 was the only Russian election that extended beyond the first round. A weakened Boris Yeltsin barely survived this electoral challenge from the resurgent Communist Party. In order to secure the win, Yeltsin had to rely heavily on influence and favors from the new class of oligarchs. Financial turmoil and subservience to these oligarchs ended up characterizing the last of Yeltsin’s years in office.

Vladimir Putin followed these years of weakness with political muscle made possible by his electoral superiority in the first round of elections. This perception of electoral invulnerability helped Putin to quickly centralize political power and stabilize Russia’s economic chaos. Even out of the presidential office, Putin’s political influence runs deep today.

In the politics of perception, Rahm Emanuel knows that winning a plurality of tomorrow’s votes without securing the outright majority will be perceived of as weakness. And when the image of electoral dominance can lead to the reality of political strength, Emanuel surely wants to be remembered as winning first round elections like Putin rather than stumbling through the second round like Yeltsin.


  1. I agree with the ideas that Rahm Emanuel must win the first round of elections becuase he gives an air of dominance that would take a hit if he does not win in the first round. In France, if a candidate does not win in the first round, it is expected due to the large number of people running while in elections like those in Chicago and Iran there is usually a favorite. This is why Rahm Emanuel must win in the first round of elections.

  2. I agree also, because it will mean more winning the first round and having that control of the competition. Rahm wants to win it all and if he has to do that through the second round he will look less wanted and less of a strong candidate. Although Chicago is more like Iran and Russia, I think the process France goes through is a good idea to consider because it helps lessen factions. Getting through the first round simply means you are a favorite but you are not done, the person running for election then would have to reach out to other factions and try to gain enough support to take the majority of votes. This seems like such a good way to elect a person into government because it creates a more strategic campaign and having different rounds allows more factions to be reached out to.

  3. Well it would obviously show more dominance if Emanuel won the first round with a majority of the votes. However, if he moved on to the second round without securing enough votes, his argument and stance will not be as strong. However, the latter would be better for Chicago as a whole. In the first, if Emanuel wins enough votes in the first round, he does not have to try hard to secure many more votes. On the other hand, if he does not have enough votes in the first round, he will be looking towards more voters to connect to. This would mean reaching out to more minority groups and factions that would otherwise not have such a large say in politics. If Emanuel reaches out to these new groups, he is creating a sense of unity by bringing these diverse groups all under one political party which in the end, is the main goal of any political party.

    Christian Wilhelm

  4. I agree with Christian in that the voting has to go to the second round in order for Chicago's citizens to get the most benefits. By not winning a majority, Emanuel or any other candidate would have to compromise with some ideals of their opposition in order to secure a majority. This ensures that more voters will get some of the policies or ideals they were looking for.

    Ken Kancharla
    Period 1

  5. I definitely agree that Emanuel should be going to second round with confidence by winning the first, but by doing so, it may appeal as he is insufficent and not confident in his appeal to the voters through his political beliefs.
    The benefit of going to second round will allow voters to fully understand the people they are voting for as mayor

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  7. Emanuel won today! But only by a narrow margin - 55%. That indicates that Emanuel did not have as much support as I had thought; he was clearly not a unanimous choice. This will make Emanuel's first couple of months as mayor very interesting. Will he have the city at his will with 55% of the vote? I think that Emanuel's win, while in the first round, should be seen with caution. He's definitely not Putin yet. He still has a long way to go in Chicago mayoral politics to achieve that kind of level.

    Justin Hyun

  8. The non partisan election should not be used for the presidential election because although it works for France, France has many candidates running. However, this type of election in a national scale can be very dividing because the people are divided among so many candidates with so many different views. So even though France has great voter turnout, it may not be a great thing. In terms of Iran and Russia, the non partisan election never goes to a second round because a candidate always gets the majority in the first round. Because one candidate always gets the majority in the first round, they are empowered. When people see that someone is very popular, more and more people turn to him because people like winners. As a result, the candidate receives more power and he might abuse his popularity. Lastly, the non partisan election is just like a direct democracy. So, minority will be oppressed, the majority might be wrong, and the voters might not be educated enough to vote. So all in all, non partisan election for the presidential election is a terrible idea.

  9. It is interesting to think of using the two round voting for a presidential election. It seems as though many Americans are moderate and agree with some ideas from one side and some ideas from another side. If we had presidential elections like Frances', it may be possible to find a candidate that represents the majority belief rather then getting a president that represents the views of just one side. Although I like the idea, I agree with Jenny, that just because it creates great voter turnout in France doesn't mean it is right for the American presidential election. I like that we use this type of voting for the mayoral elections.I agree with Christian that if Rahm had to go to the second round it would force him to compromise more and more voices would be heard. But, in Chicago's current situation, they need someone who might not compromise and will be willing to stick with his plan, even if everyone doesn't like it. Things need to change and with compromise, they might not change. Rahm will have to make difficult decisions that might make him look like the bad guy and may cause it to be harder for him to be re-elected, but a first round win will allow him to make the changes that need to be made, for the greater good, even if everyone doesn't agree.

    Erica Loken
    Conneen- Per. 1

  10. although, emanuel won with a fifty percent vote i think he needs to do what clinton did: be all over the place, appeal to all with no strong stand, and "cheat" his way to win.

    brian m. kim
    period 1

  11. Though I do believe that a non-partisan election is generally quite effective in placing the best candidate in office, there exists one major flaw: people don't like change! I think this is why the Daleys were in office for so long. While they were certainly good mayors, there have been some moments that their leadership has been questioned. Most recently, in fact, was when the blizzard earlier this month snowed in several people on Lake Shore Drive, which Daley neglected to close for the night. The thing is, people know what to expect from those that have been in office so long, so they stand a much better chance for re-election come next term. For Rahm Emanuel to hold onto his mayoral post through many more elections, he must show the city of Chicago that he is a capable leader and thus secure his spot.

    Mike Wilner
    Conneen p. 7