Home » Yes, the Russian election is rigged – but there could still be surprises in store for Putin

Yes, the Russian election is rigged – but there could still be surprises in store for Putin

by Marko Florentino
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In a bumper year for elections, with more than 60 countries, including the United States, India and probably the UK, all going to the polls, Russia’s presidential contest has drawn relatively little attention outside the country. And it is true that the vote this weekend will be among the least savoury and most predictable renditions of the democratic process.

It will be among the least savoury because, for a start, it is being held not just across Russia’s vast territory, but in some territories – Crimea and four regions of eastern Ukraine – that are not recognised as belonging to Russia at all.

It is unsavoury, too, because the process itself is defective in so many ways. Vladimir Putin is standing for a fifth term that would make him – in a parallel much cited by his detractors – Russia’s longest ruling leader since Stalin. He can do this, thanks to a 2020 referendum that amended the constitution essentially to restart the clock on presidential term limits – a change that seemed expressly designed to facilitate at least one more term for Putin.

In 2008, as his second term closed, Putin had taken a different approach to constitutional constraints, arranging to swap places with his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to comply with the consecutive two-term limit. He returned to the presidency in 2012 – a move, it is worth noting, that triggered the biggest protests of his tenure. The changes of 2020 were largely unopposed, and Putin, now 71, could, in theory, still be in the Kremlin in 2036.

Russian voters’ choice of candidates is also as circumscribed as it mostly was. On the ballot paper, along with Putin – who is standing, by the way, as an independent – are just three whose support registers at more than 1 per cent. There is Leonid Slutsky – heir to the late firebrand, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR); Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party, and Vladislav Davankov of the New People party, and deputy chairman of the State Duma (the Russian parliament).

This has been a standard lineup in Russian presidential elections for years. The nationalist right, the old Communists on the left, and a novelty candidate whose platform plays to contemporary concerns as a sort of safety valve. In Davankov’s case, this means being critical – but not too critical – of the Ukraine war, including support for negotiations.

In terms of the election’s democratic credentials, of course, it is at least as significant who is not on the ballot paper, as who is. Boris Nadezhdin had been hoping to stand as the anti-war candidate, and had enjoyed some campaigning success. Perhaps too much, because he was barred in time-honoured fashion, after too many of his endorsing signatures were ruled invalid.

The prominent opposition figure, and anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny, had also been excluded by dint of a string of prison sentences. Indeed, he had been kept out of all elections since a better-than-forecast 27 per cent in the Moscow mayoral election of 2013. His sudden death in the Polar Wolf prison camp last month, however, may not mark the end of the Navalny effect on Russian politics.

As for those who will be on the ballot paper, the latest Russian polls forecast as follows: Putin – 75 per cent; Slutsky – 3 per cent; Kharitonov – 4 per cent, and Davankov – 6 per cent. What is more, the awkward truth is that those figures do not have to have been manipulated. Unpopular though the war may be in some quarters, Putin’s support has held up (along with living standards and national morale), and all despite the strange mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner mercenaries last June.

Yes, Putin benefits from what are called “administrative resources” – otherwise known as the incumbent’s advantage – to dominate the campaign, as well as the restrictions on free speech introduced after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the barring of opposition candidates and the repression against opposition, especially Navalny supporters. But in a free vote, given his political dominance and longevity, Putin would still be a near-certainty to win.

So why, you might ask, doesn’t Putin just hold a free vote, or avoid all risk and ditch the electoral facade altogether? Why go to all the trouble of amending the constitution, allowing alternative candidates, and then holding a vote at all? At the very least, he could have declared a state of emergency, invoking the war, and delayed the whole thing for as long as he chose. And why, you might also ask, given the predictability of the result, should the outside world take any notice?

That Putin – and, it must be said, so many other leaders – works so hard to create a semblance of electoral democracy, has to be seen as a massive victory for the Western way – even if many genuine democracies fall short. And among those democracies, the US system of checks, balances, term limits and (mostly) orderly and consensual changes of power, is widely seen as the gold standard. That is partly why the Russian constitution pre-Putin had a limit on presidential power of two four-year terms, and why it took Putin 20 years to amend it.

There is much in the post-Soviet Russian state, including much of the ceremony, the president’s state of the nation address and breathless election night TV coverage, that betrays an envy of the US way of doing things. Borrowed in form, if not in substance, these are the hallmarks of a “proper” state. However spurious his election might look from the outside, Putin craves the validation of a vote. And yet, however carefully arranged both the process and the result, an election still contains tiny slivers of risk, which is why – defective as this election will be – the outside world should take notice.

In all, from the Pacific to the Baltic and the Black Sea, 113 million people have the right to vote this weekend – and for all the precautions taken by the Kremlin, there are uncertainties to watch for. Will Putin reach that forecast 75 per cent of votes cast? And if he does, on what turnout? This election is being run across three days (Friday to Sunday) and there is also the possibility of e-voting.

Both the extended time and the e-voting can be seen as ways of upping the turnout. But they also, of course, offer abundant opportunities for rigging (much easier to doctor the computer, for instance, than “stuff” the ballot-box or bus trusted voters to multiple polling stations). But social media also offers new opportunities for independent monitoring, and turnout could be a better gauge of Putin’s support than the actual vote. Will people stay away, either through apathy or hostility?

Then again, could there be overt protests? This might have seemed improbable before hundreds of thousands of Russians turned out to pay their last respects to Navalny, either at his grave in Moscow or at designated places of memorial all over Russia. His widow, Yulia, has reiterated her late husband’s request to his supporters to mass at polling stations at midday on Sunday as a protest. Will they? Was the attack on his chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, in Lithuania, this week, intended as a warning? Will it have a deterrent effect?

And how will the authorities police these elections? Another surprise, barely noted outside Russia, was the hands-off policing of the Navalny obsequies. A few people were arrested later, but calm and dignity were preserved. Was this because the Kremlin had qualms about riot police beating mourners? Or was it rather for fear of escalating protests? And which will be the authorities’ greater fear through these elections: of dissent itself, or of the risk that trying to quash that dissent by force could rebound?

It is not completely wrong to describe this Russian presidential election as, to an extent, a referendum on Putin’s current term as president and/or on Russia’s war against Ukraine. But it may also be seen as a reflection, albeit partial and imperfect, of the state of Russia after almost a quarter-century of Putin – the reflection of a monolith that may be starting to show cracks.

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