Home » Why Putin is desperate for a big election win | Opinions

Why Putin is desperate for a big election win | Opinions

by Marko Florentino
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For many, the outcome of the Russian presidential election, scheduled to take place between March 15 and 17, is already known. President Vladimir Putin is facing little competition from the other candidates on the ballot after the election commission barred any challenger who could have garnered some public support from running.

Yekaterina Duntsova, a former TV journalist, who in November announced her intention to run, was disqualified shortly after submitting her application; her candidacy had attracted too much public attention and interest for the Kremlin’s liking. Boris Nadezhdin, a liberal politician, who had called for the end of the war in Ukraine, was also not allowed to run, after showing the potential to attract the anti-Putin vote.

Putin clearly does not want his election victory to be called into question and would like to see a landslide win that would give him the mandate to continue his policies, including what he calls “the special military operation” in Ukraine.

A landslide victory would “prove” Russian society fully supports his war and enable him to take unpopular measures, including announcing a second wave of mobilisation. Putin’s plan is likely to amass enough troops to launch a new major offensive, break through the Ukrainian defences, and take Kharkov, Odesa and perhaps even Kyiv. Then he hopes Donald Trump would come to power in the US and negotiate and sign a peace deal on Russian terms.

The reason why the Kremlin is so desperate for a big win in the presidential election is because it realises the majority of the Russian population is not too enthusiastic about the war.

Currently, all official pollsters in the country report in their surveys high support for the war (about 70 percent). But their method of polling involves the narrow question “Do you support the special military operation?” Given the passing of legislation criminalising criticism of the Russian military and the detention and imprisonment of many who have dared openly declare their opposition to the war, few respondents would be willing to say “no” and risk getting in trouble. The Kremlin knows that.

Independent pollsters, like the Chronicles Project, take this fear into account and add more questions to detect public sentiment, such as “Do you support the end of the operation?” and “Do you support the top federal budget priority should be the army”. This approach reveals that the “consistent supporters of war” are just 17 percent of those polls.

Among them are undoubtedly, civil servants and people employed by the military-industrial complex, which is now receiving large government orders and driving some of the country’s short-term economic growth.

If you look at the Telegram channels of the leading “war correspondents” – pro-government bloggers who write about the war – the dominant theme in their messages and posts is not the victories of the Russian troops, the effectiveness of Russian weapons or even the constant criticism of the poor state of affairs in the Russian army, the corruption, and so on. Rather, it is their disdain for the perceived public indifference to the war.

These bloggers constantly complain about ordinary Russians displaying little interest in developments on the battlefield and even sometimes hostility towards the participants in the “special operation”.

Indeed, the majority of Russians – who may answer “yes” to a question on whether they support the war – generally try not to think about the conflict or get involved in politics at all. Many of them consider the war inevitable and feel they cannot do anything about it. This is, no doubt, a reflection of what psychologists call “learned helplessness” – the result of decades of living under oppressive regimes. This silent and passive obedience – a mode of survival – is very often mistaken for support for Putin’s regime and the war.

At the same time, there is a large group, roughly 20 percent, who are openly against the war and Putin’s regime.

These are people with democratic and anti-war convictions. In February and March 2022, they took to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. About 20,000 people were detained across the country, which reflects the scope and scale of these demonstrations.

The extent of anti-Putin sentiment was also made apparent by the unprecedented attendance of the farewell for opposition politician Alexey Navalny, who died in prison in February. Tens of thousands of people came to say goodbye and lay flowers on the grave of a man who had dedicated his entire political career to fighting Putin’s regime.

By contrast, the funerals of prominent pro-war figures, such as Wagner mercenary company founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash in August, and Vladen Tatarsky, a well-known “war correspondent” assassinated in Saint Petersburg in April last year, did not draw such crowds.

This group of opposition-minded citizens has now been called to challenge Putin at the polls. Members of the Russian opposition, including Navalny’s widow Yulia, have encouraged people to show up at the polling stations and either vote for any of the other candidates on the ballot or to spoil it.

The idea is to shrink Putin’s expected victory of 80 or 90 percent to, say, 45-55 percent. The incumbent would still win but such a large protest vote would demonstrate to the Kremlin and the political elite that he does not really have the kind of legitimacy he claims.

Is this a viable strategy? In principle, the inert majority tends to ignore elections. Those who do show up, will likely cast a vote for Putin not because they support everything he does, but because for them, he is a symbol of stability and the only hope that the situation will improve.

It is still quite difficult for the apolitical majority to make a direct logical connection between the president, his policies and the deterioration of the situation in Russia. They tend to associate their standard and circumstances of living directly with local authorities, at most with the governors. Putin personally is always above the fray.

The low turnout of Putin’s electorate could play in favour of the opposition’s plan, but only if the anti-Putin electorate mobilises to show up at polling stations. One of the main obstacles to that is the perception among many antiwar Russian citizens that the election is just a spectacle and there is no sense in participating in it. If this reluctance to vote is overcome, then, we may well witness a protest vote significant enough to dent Putin’s legitimacy claims, which could dampen the war fervour and plant a seed of doubt in the political elite.

Of course, there are no guarantees, but between action and inaction, opposition-minded Russians must choose action. If Putin wins with 80-90 percent of the vote, he will present it as a sign of nationwide support and embark on his plan to further consolidate power and escalate military action in Ukraine and Europe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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