Russians will vote for their next president on 18 March. The first round features eight candidates, but there is little suspense regarding the ultimate winner of the elections. A second round may not be necessary. Violence and political pressure make sure both supporters and opponents stay in line.
“The primary purpose of these elections is to demonstrate the power that Vladimir Putin holds. He will use the results to justify his position and communicate to his opponents that resistance is futile,” describes Margarita Zavadskaya, a recently appointed post-doctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute. She has studied election-related misconduct. Some of her research has focused specifically on Russia.
Zavadskaya considers the upcoming election boring because the result is so obvious, but believes there will nevertheless be violence, political pressure and media control associated with it.
Focus on voter turnout
According to Zavadskaya, Putin is aiming less for a landslide victory and more for a high turnout percentage. It would prove that he has broad approval.
Many Russians genuinely support Putin, so there are fewer cases of election malpractice in the presidential elections than in parliamentary elections, for example.
“Partially it’s because of the public support, and partially because the elections have to appear legitimate,” says Zavadskaya.
If it seems like the will of the people is being done and the right person has been elected, it will be more difficult to question Putin’s position of power.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the result will be entirely honest.
Even though the powers-that-be appear stable, Zavadskaya believes that they are afraid. After the previous elections, there were protests targeting election malpractice. Tens of thousands of people joined the protests, so it is unlikely that politicians are eager to see such demonstrations repeated.
Fraud before the elections
Russia has a long history of falsifying election results. Current politicians have learned from their predecessors. More than a decade ago, elections were swayed by corruption and vote-buying, but now those in power use intimidation as their tool.
“They’ve switched from the carrot to the stick,” quips Zavadskaya.
She says that the manipulation of an election primarily takes place before the election, particularly at workplaces.
“Most Russians work for the government or at government-owned companies. There, the atmosphere is such that people who don’t vote or vote for the wrong candidate are likely to lose their jobs. The pressure may not be direct, but the general atmosphere instructs people what to do.”
Violence may also be associated with the political pressure. The police may organise scattered, random attacks, targeting Putin’s opponents. Officials profile supporters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and may assault them in anticipation of demonstrations.
“The message is that organising protests is a bad idea,” says Zavadskaya.
She says that some years ago, working in top opposition positions was relatively safe, but this is no longer the case. Arrests and surveillance are focusing on other people besides Navalny.
“Putin never speaks of Navalny by name. Russians joke that Navalny is ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’,” laughs Zavadskaya.
Putin is also blocking Navalny from appearing on television or in newspapers. For this reason, Navalny has established his own YouTube channel, featuring programming such as Cactus, which provides information on the Russian economy.
TV star and bad boy play to the audience
The Russian election is a show of strength from its established powers, but also entertainment.
“Putin and Russia are like an old married couple who are trying to spice up their relationship by having elections,” says Zavadskaya.
The job of seven of the eight candidates is to entertain, or to attract voters who might otherwise skip the election.
In particular, first-time candidate Ksenia Sobchak and the Communist Party’s candidate, entrepreneur Pavel Grudinin, have been featured prominently in the media.
“Sobchak is a former TV presenter. She claims to be the alternative, and that a vote for her is a vote against everyone else, but really she is something of a side dish to the main course,” says Zavadskaya.
Sobchak is a highly controversial figure, but she has garnered some positive publicity in the mass media. Grudinin, meanwhile, has been painted as the bad boy of the election. Government-run media has completely discredited his campaign.
Putin’s win not good for the economy
While Russia has improved its economy somewhat during the past few years, the positive developments are unlikely to gain momentum if Putin wins another term.
“The economy is stable, but the future does not look bright,” says Zavadskaya.
Russia has closed itself off from the West, so trade relations are not likely to improve.
“The most important thing to watch during the next six years is what will happen to the Russian Constitution.”
Under current legislation, Putin cannot run for president again, but it is of course possible he will change the situation.
“The key to understanding Russian politics is to know what Putin is thinking,” says Zavadskaya.
“If only it were possible.”