RUSSIA VOTES: Putin returns for possible 12 yrs amid controversy

By bne IntelliNews March 5, 2012

Graham Stack in Moscow -

Vladimir Putin returned as president of Russia on March 4, 12 years after becoming president of Russia for the first time, with a potential further 12-year long presidency ahead of him. Opponents accused him of falsifying the elections and are planning a protest near the Kremlin at 7:00 pm local time.

With nearly 100% of the votes counted, Putin had almost 64% of the vote, meaning there would be bo need of a second round. His nearest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, received about 17%, while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former parliamentary speaker Sergei Mironov and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov all got below 10%. "I promised you we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia," a tearful (from the wind, apparently) Putin told tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters by the Kremlin's red walls.

If Putin serves the two further six-year presidential terms he is allowed to by law, he will be 71 years old by the time he bows out in 2024, and will have effectively ruled Russia for 24 years, counting his four-year interim as prime minister. But heightened attention in Russia to electoral fraud and a strengthening civil society will undermine the legitimacy of this election victory and ask demanding questions of Putin's top-down governance system going forward.

Putin's first round victory with an overwhelming majority almost exactly matched the latest opinion poll results published by the respected independent polling organization Levada Center. The most recent poll published February 25 found that 66% of voters who had decided to vote would do so for Putin.

But there were numerous reports throughout the day of apparent electoral fraud involving in particular "carousel" voting whereby groups of hired hands equipped with absentee ballots are bussed from polling station to polling station.

Second-place candidate Zyuganov, contesting and losing his fourth election, said he would not recognize the elections as legitimate. He called the elections "illegitimate, dishonest and untransparent."

Electoral fraud during parliamentary elections on December 4 caused mass protests against Putin, his party United Russia and the conduct of elections. The resulting mobilisation, in combination with internet technologies, made today's elections likely the most "observed" in Russian history: on one hand, Putin ordered each polling station in the country to be equipped with webcameras streaming live through out the day; on the other hand, a record number of elections observers - 30,000 all told - volunteered, and activist organisations used social media to broadcast perceived violations.

Apparently Putin's web camera idea was effective: According to electoral organisation Golos, the most common form of electoral fraud this time round was the abuse of absentee ballots to vote at multiple polling stations, rather than ballot stuffing easily detectable by cameras. Following Twitter reports of buses drawing up outside polling station 2931, bne questioned an election observer who confirmed that a local construction company had bussed in its workers to vote, but using additional voters lists and passports, rather than absentee ballots.

On the ground

Putin supporters were also hard to find on the ground in Moscow, especially in comparison to previous election campaigns. Three first-time voters told bne proudly they had voted for Putin because he was a muzhik, a real man, who had done a lot for the country. "And also for ecology" said 19-year-old Zakhar Tolstikhin, an ecology student, without being able to name specific examples of Putin's environmentalism. Nina Kuzminskaya, a 30-year-old staff manager from St Petersburg also came out for Putin: "After the chaos of the 1990s, life now is good. We have traffic jams now, it's true, but back then we did not have cars."

Otherwise the atmosphere on the streets of the capital was of disenchantment with the political system Putin has built up. "We need equality of all before the law," said Elena Slepova, a 63-year-old figure skating coach who voted for the Communist Party candidate Zyuganov. Although enthusiastic about the prospect of the Winter Olympics being held in Russia's Sochi 2014, she expressed reservations about the ecological impact. "The locals weren't asked," she said.

"Corruption has got out of hand," said 25-year-old economist Dinara Shamanova, a practising Muslim who voted for Zyuganov. "And regarding me personally, according to the Russian constitution, all religions are equal, but it is difficult to find work where they will allow Muslims to practice their religion, including prayer times."

Vladimir Drobyshevsky, a lawyer, said that Putin himself needed to "take a break", and all the other candidates were non-electable. "I told the electoral commission to keep the line by my name blank, and that I would check in a week's time that no one has voted in my place."

Putin supporters en masse were only visible at the victory rallies held in downtown Moscow following the closing of polling stations, organized by pro-Putin "astro-turf" organisations such as Molodaya Gvardia. But even here, few in attendance were vocal in support. "I don't follow politics closely and don't really know why we're here," said Svetlana, 19, who declined to give her last name and who said the students from the Moscow region institute she attends had been bussed in to the rally.

Rough waters ahead

The scale of Putin's first-round victory is likely to infuriate the extra-parliamentary opposition who already turned out in force - numbering up to 100,000 - in Moscow demonstrations in the wake of disputed parliamentary elections results in December, and who also claim that - despite the demonstrations - similarly systematic fraud has now been perpetrated again by authorities during the presidential vote.

Another protest demonstration is booked for the evening of March 5, and although a workday rally may not gather huge crowds, precisely this factor mixed with heightened frustration could prompt demonstrators to use more aggressive tactics than speeches and catchy slogans.

The electoral fraud allegations are also likely to be echoed volubly by Western media and diplomats, with Russia under huge international pressure to give way in the United Nations security council over Syria and Iran.

And there are more elections ahead: Russia is set to reintroduce direct elections for potentially powerful governors of Russia's 83 federal subjects, who actually do a lot of the day-to-day administration of the country. Ongoing discontent at Putin's rule is certain to be reflected in proxy battles at regional level, with 16 governors up for elections in 2012.

Finally, spare a thought for the real loser of the night - outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, who appeared beside Putin at the latter's post-election victory rally. When Putin stepped down from the post of president to become prime minister in 2008, with Medvedev taking his place, the word "tandem" was in everyone's mouth. But despite Medvedev apparently on track for the post of prime minister, now that Putin has triumphantly returned as president, the concept of tandem is looking very very dead.

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