For an Audio Version of this article click here:
As expected by pretty much everyone, Vladimir Putin has been voted in for a fourth term as president of Russia. With 99% of the votes now counted, he has swept to victory with 76.69% of the electorate, while the seven other candidates earned a few measly percentage points each.
Putin stood as an Independent, distancing himself from his former party United Russia after a series of corruption scandals linked to senior members. No longer tied to a political party and now set to be the longest-serving leader of Russia since Stalin, Putin is closer than ever to resembling a dictator, although he has done everything possible to maintain an image of democratic legitimacy. To remedy voter apathy the government was reportedly aiming for a 70% turnout, although the reality now seems closer to 60%.
MOST DEFINITELY A DEMOCRATIC VICTORY, BELIEVE ME
Putin’s previous presidential term suffered from a rocky beginning, with protests on the streets of Moscow (including the Pussy Riot performance that received worldwide media attention) and accusations of fraud and vote-rigging. It seems the President didn’t want a repeat episode this time around.
However authoritarian Russia’s government may actually be, huge effort has gone into at least creating the impression of democracy. The Kremlin and local governments have barely stopped short of bribing the public to go out and vote, staging a whole range of novelties in order to tempt people into polling stations. It was a Soviet tradition to boost morale with festivities at elections, and this year the Kremlin instructed election organizers to create a holiday atmosphere around the elections, according to Russian media outlet RBC.
Signs have been hung with balloons, musicians in bear costumes played outside venues and voters happily tucked into buffets laid out at polling stations: “Food is delicious here. Vote and eat in the same place,” said a tweet in the Moscow suburb of Korolov, while a venue in the city of Magadan received a large cake. The elderly were offered cancer screenings, while younger voters were tempted by raffles and photo competitions where prizes like iphones, ipads, bicycles, cars, and cameras were up for grabs, as long you posted a selfie of yourself at a voting station.
Much to-do has been made about the Russian diaspora voting at embassies overseas, while helicopters flew staff and ballots into remote areas of Russia so that everyone had the opportunity to vote. Even cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov was filmed voting from the International Space Station!
…OR WAS IT?
Not everyone was convinced by the show, however. A few accusations of ballot stuffing have come out, with Russian election watchdog GOLOS also noting breaches such as suspected forced voting, balloons blocking surveillance cameras and observers excluded from some polling stations.
Also concerning is the systemic exclusion of any candidates that would pose a real threat to Putin’s power. The incumbent is in control of a whole range of “administrative resources” according to Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst. Opposition candidates must be approved by the Kremlin and their media appearances are highly controlled by the state. One competing candidate was socialite and television host Ksenia Sobchak, who has suspicious family ties to Putin, despite opposing the President publicly.
The Russian chess champion and Human Rights Foundation chairman Garry Kasparov, who now resides in New York City, wrote in the Weekly Standard:
“Putin will continue in power as if by birthright, and calling this an election soils the meaning of a word that should be treasured…There is no form of democratic process or opposition in Putin’s Russia.”
Kasparov himself attempted to run against Putin in 2008 but was prevented from doing so by failing to meet regulations, in what he labeled official obstruction.
Another vocal Putin dissident is anti-establishment political activist Alexei Navalny, who has used social media to reach Russia’s youth. He is another candidate barred from running in Russian elections due to a criminal conviction he claims was politically motivated. Nalvany anticipated election fraud, claiming on his YouTube channel that teachers were being coerced into manipulating the vote count and pleading with them to resist. He founded the Moscow based Anti Corruption Foundation which has investigated and exposed several people in Putin’s inner circle, although it hasn’t gone directly after the man himself – at least, not yet.
Navalny said in a YouTube video that none of the election candidates were worthy and that “on election day, one should usually want to say ‘I voted,’ but in fact I’m here to say that I didn’t go to vote.” He called for his audience to boycott and protest the election, announcing that “either we learn to come out on the streets to express our demands, or they will keep stealing from us forever.” He himself was arrested at one such protest in Moscow; later released without charge but may have to appear in court at a later date, according to his lawyer.
THE WESTERN PERSPECTIVE
It’s difficult for we in the West to get an accurate picture of Putin’s actual popularity among the Russian public. His public approval rating rests around 80% according to opinion polls, however, these are government sanctioned and may not reflect the truth, particularly as the highly controlled media has no interest in disputing the figures.
Putin undoubtedly has his supporters, who see him as a tough leader who has restored Russia’s strong image on the world stage, improved social welfare and built the middle class in a country that was destitute not too long ago. But perhaps the most obvious reason to vote for Putin is that there simply is no credible alternative – and that’s just the way he likes it.