Did Putin win too many votes by mistake in the most falsified election in post-Soviet history?

Did Putin win too many votes by mistake in the most falsified election in post-Soviet history?
Putin won more votes than most self-respecting Central Asian dictators would dare award themselves. Did he get too many votes from over-enthusiastic ballot-stuffing officials by mistake? / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 19, 2024

Was Russia’s presidential election the most falsified in post-Soviet history?

Russian President Vladimir Putin won re-election on March 17 with an unbelievable 87.28% of the vote – a full ten points higher than his 2018 election “victory” – on a 77.44% turnout. That is the sort of result usually only seen for Middle Eastern despots or Central Asian dictators.

In Western democracies occasionally a candidate wins 60-70% of the vote, but usually only in extreme circumstances. In the West it has only happened once: the 80% mark was breached when the vast majority of France’s population rallied behind Jacques Chirac to give him 82% to prevent far-right extremist Jean-Marie le Pen from winning a presidential run-off in 2002, The Bell reports.

But once you cross Austria’s eastern border these sky-high results become pretty routine. Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was re-elected in 2023 with 87.1% of the vote. Kazakh President Tokayev won re-election with 81.3% of the vote a year earlier. And Sadyr Japarov was confirmed president in 2020 with a surprisingly modest 79.83% after a week of revolutionary violence ousted his predecessor.

Putin even outdid the 72.97% that Turkmen President Serdar Berdimukhamedov won when he became president in 2022, but not that of his bonkers knife-throwing-while-on-a-bicycle father Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov who won a whopping 97.69% of the vote in his last election result in 2017.

Putin’s “victory” follows on from a long history of Soviet-era election results north of 70%, where “popular outpourings of support” sent election victory results into the stratosphere, and it is way better than his first victory in 2000, when he only took 53.44% of the vote, beating Communist Party boss Gennady Zhuganov, who won 29.49%.

As bne IntelliNews reported, Putin has spent the last two decades refining his election juggernaut that has now become a well-oiled cheating machine, designed to deliver him any result he wants. Except this year it appears to have worked too well: The Bell reports that Putin may have actually won too many votes by mistake thanks to the over-enthusiasm of local officials ordered to stuff the ballot boxes.

Investigations conducted by journalists and independent analysts have concluded that the vote was massively falsified and suggest that it was subject to unprecedented levels of manipulation. According to a collaborative analysis by IStories and Ivan Shukshin, a researcher affiliated with the Golos vote-monitoring NGO, it is estimated that nearly 22mn out of the 76.3mn votes cast in favour of President Putin could be fake – almost a third of his official vote count – although that means Putin would have still won re-election by a landslide in a free and fair vote.

Another report on possible ballot-stuffing by opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe found up to 31.6mn votes for Putin might have been fabricated, which accounts for almost half of his total vote count.

The methodology employed by IStories and Shukshin hinges on a detailed examination of turnout and vote shares across individual polling stations, drawing on data released by the central election commission, The Bell reports.

The pattern that emerged from their analysis shows a positive correlation between high voter turnouts and substantial vote shares for Putin. As bne IntelliNews reported, exactly the same phenomenon was seen in the 2021 Duma elections, where exceptionally high turnouts correlated with a stronger performance for the ruling Untied Russia party to the detriment of the Communist Party (KPRF), its main contender.

The Kremlin went into the elections saying it wanted to see a 70% win for Putin on a 70% voter turnout but a report by RBC in the spring of 2023 upgraded that ambition to a 75% vote share for Putin with the same turnout. Subsequently Russian liberal media Meduza reported that regional authorities then received an even more ambitious target and were told to ensure at least an 80% vote share for Putin.

By contrast, the final pre-election opinion polls conducted by the state-affiliated pollster VTsIOM, which are often seen as indirect mandates to regional election officials, forecast Putin would win the initial target of a 75% vote share. That discrepancy has led some Russian observers to conclude that election officials overdid it and gave Putin too many votes.

“Many experienced observers of Russian politics (1 2) believe that election organisers in provincial Russia “overdid it” this time round. Most pre-election leaks of the Kremlin’s vote strategy featured more modest targets,” The Bell reported.

The big change in this election from the last presidential poll in 2018 is the introduction of electronic voting. In previous elections paper ballots meant that the voters at least retained control of their ballot, which they could mark as they liked, even if they didn’t control the counting. In this election electronic voting was introduced in 29 regions, where the voters lose control even over the ballot. With an electronic plebiscite there is no physical evidence of which way a person voted. The Kremlin can make up any result it wants. Some 70% of the 4.7mn voters registered to vote online cast their vote in the first of the three-day voting period. At the same time the Central Election Committee (CEC) stopped video monitoring of polling stations after the 2018 elections, after cameras repeatedly caught officials physically stuffing hundreds of ballot papers into the boxes. Even the state-controlled CEC had to annul the results in 11 regions when it became impossible to deny the results had been fixed in those regions.