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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


In among the least unexpected news of the year so far, Vladimir Putin claimed victory in Russia's presidential election last weekend. The official result handed him 87% and another six years in power. If he sees out the term to 2030, then he will have survived three decades in power.

The context for the vote was not only Russia's war against Ukraine, but also the conviction Putin and his allies have that the pendulum of world politics is swinging away from liberal democracy and western hegemony. They believe that world events are turning in their favour. With that in mind, here are three takeaways from last weekend's Russian election.

Manipulations: Putin needed a big win

The first is that the margin of the claimed victory actually betrays some nervousness in the Kremlin about support for Putin. There is a long–running scholarly debate about whether the Russian leader is genuinely as popular as polling finds, with concerns that fear prevents people from responding to surveys honestly. But, for what it's worth, I expect Putin does command a comfortable majority of support in Russia: polling by the independent Levada Centre has found continuous approval of over 80% since the 24 February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Dictators often are popular for long periods of time, although support can be surprisingly flimsy and collapse quickly. Nicolae Ceausescu's independent foreign policy, coupled with economic development, made him very popular in the late 1960s and 70s. A stagnant economy in the 1980s turned the population against him with a dramatic denouement which saw him and his wife executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day.

It is almost certainly owing to Putin's awareness of how easily the people could turn against him that he needed a higher vote share than in the past (cf. 64% in 2012 and 78% in 2018). The official figures also report the highest turnout (74%) in Russia's electoral history. In the context of war, Putin does not want to provide his opponents with evidence that his popularity is waning. If people believed that 45% were opposed to Putin, then it is imaginable that 55% could be against him. In the unpredictable context of war, public sentiment could shift rapidly.

Manipulations: No level playing field

The second takeaway is that Putin is less concerned than in the past with the pretext of democracy. It's hardly the first Russian election that was neither free nor fair. As usual, genuine opponents were barred from standing. The most prominent opponent, Alexey Navalny, died shortly before the election. Meanwhile Boris Nadezhdin, who tried to stand on an anti–war platform, collected enough signatures in support of his candidacy – only for the Central Election Commission to reject his application on grounds that too many signatures were invalid (a classic means for barring unwanted candidates).

The use of electronic voting for the first time increased the opportunities for manipulation. Who could observe an electronic vote? State employees were encouraged to vote from their office desks, perhaps with a boss looking over their shoulder; their employers were actively pushing for the Putin vote, something that was not being disguised.

The vote also took place in the parts of Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed and these reported support for Putin far higher than the mean: 94% in Luhansk People's Republic and 95% in the Donetsk People's Republic. [1] It was important for the Kremlin to have high results in these regions to persuade the Russian public at large that the war is justified. Credible reports suggest that people were forced to turn out and vote in these areas, however. A Ukrainian villager told the BBC that people were going from house to house with a ballot box, an armed soldier in tow, to ensure votes were cast.

The pretext of democracy in Russia is ever flimsier, which is why the Kremlin did not bother to invite OSCE observers for the first time. The Kremlin seems to be losing its belief that it must mimic democratic practices and norms. On the one hand, the shallowness of Russian democracy has not been hard to spot as the Putin era has worn on: his long stay in power has been made possible by twice changing the constitution; in 2008 the presidential term was increased from four to six years, and without constitutional amendments in 2020, Putin would not have been eligible to stand for a third consecutive term. On the other hand, Russia has until now 'played' at democracy, using its own shadow election monitoring missions to claim legitimacy for their politics and disarm the domestic political opposition.

All quiet(ish) on the opposition front

One way of understanding this move away from playing the democracy imitation game, and the third takeaway, is that the opposition to Putin inside Russia appeared quite weak.

In the Russian diaspora one can usually expect a heavy protest vote; many in the diaspora have left Russia because they do not support Putin's leadership. Long queues outside Russian embassies in European capitals were part of a 'noon against Putin' protest action and we can assume many of these expatriate voters spoiled their ballots.

But there were only very small disruptions in the country itself. Videos posted on social media showed green dye (zelyonka) being poured into ballot boxes, as well as a small number of arson attacks. Reportedly, 80 people were arrested for election–related offences. That is remarkably few in a country of nearly 150 million people. One might have expected the recent death of Navalny to spur people into action. It didn't.

Smoking out opponents

Elections can be risky. There have been plenty of post–election protests over the years, including the 2020 protests in Belarus. Putin, as noted above, has twice changed the constitution to stay at the helm. So, if I am right and Putin does command majority support, why does he still bother with elections?

Elections continue to be useful for a couple of reasons. Notwithstanding the points above, an election still conveys a faux legitimacy on Putin's rule domestically and, in an international context, Putin did receive congratulations from India, China and several other states. People have internalised the idea that elections matter and that is why a 'sham election' is still deemed necessary as a form of legitimation.

More importantly, elections are a good way of drawing opponents out into the open. Without elections, it is harder for the Kremlin to gauge how strong the support base for, and opposition to, Putin is. Opponents, smelling the possibility of gaining moral support from outside actors, come out into the open with an election looming. But an incumbent regime sees the vote as a necessary step in identifying opponents and prolonging its control over society. Accordingly, even if the votes are stripped of wider democratic norms and practices, Russia will continue to hold elections.

The war vote

The vote took place in the context of the war expanding into Russian territory. Russian paramilitary groups launched a series of coordinated attacks inside Russia shortly before the vote, and Ukraine has hit a number of Russian oil depots in drone strikes. While land warfare in Ukraine might look to have turned in a favourable direction for Russia, a broader picture must take into account Ukraine's continuing success against Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine has sunk several Russian ships: from the flagship Moskva in April 2022 to the sinking of the Ivanovets warship and the Caesar Kunikov landing ship this February. Its drone and missile attacks have damaged other vessels; a third of the fleet has been taken out of action because of Ukraine's targeted strikes.

Putin will claim last weekend's vote is an endorsement for the war. His rhetoric implies Russia's economy has weathered the storm of sanctions, although some in western states think the Russian economy is still headed for wrack and ruin. Either way, an emboldened Putin, unchecked by domestic institutions, is increasingly likely to overplay his hand. And support for dictators can be surprisingly flimsy, as Putin surely knows.

[1] A process of 'election forensics', drawing on fairly simple statistical analysis, can expose data falsifications. For example, the assumption is that statistical results should conform to a normal distribution; with a proclaimed result of 87% voting for Putin, we would expect the distribution of results from individual polling districts to cluster round that number, and thin out into tails on either end to produce a bell curve. So, while the reported result of a 99% vote for Putin in Chechnya might not be impossible on its own, the overall results start to look highly improbable when plotted on a graph and not distributing into a bell curve. (Chechnya, readers will recall, has fought wars against the Russian state. It's local rulers have a habit of reporting extremely high electoral support for Putin, presumably as a signal of the province's loyalty.)

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