MOSCOW BLOG: Fake numbers but a real result in Russia’s presidential election

MOSCOW BLOG: Fake numbers but a real result in Russia’s presidential election
Kremlin largess on poor regions had very little impact on voting patterns / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 20, 2018

The Russian presidential vote was fixed with between 1.5mn and 10mn extra votes stuffed into ballot boxes. But the result that saw President Vladimir Putin re-elected for a forth term was real. 

Russia has a hybrid democratic system, and Putin needs to win a significant proportion of the votes if he is to avoid widespread and regime-threatening protests, but the Kremlin then pushes up the number of votes to cross various important thresholds. This year the extra votes made sure Putin won just over 50% of the popular vote.

There is no doubt that the Kremlin fixed the vote — it was not even done subtly. Early election results released by the authorities raised a wry grin amongst Russia watchers as in addition to showing Putin well in the lead, the total percentages added up to 122%.

That blooper was quickly corrected and the final result with 99% of the votes counted was as follows:

Russian presidential election results


Vladimir Putin (independent)


Pavel Grudinin (KPRF)


Vladimir Zhirinovsky (LDPR)


Ksenia Sobchak (Civic Initiative)


Grigory Yavlinsky (Yabloko)


Boris Titov (Party of Growth)


Maxim Suraykin (Communists of Russia)


Sergei Baburin (Russian All People’s Union)


Source: CEC

On the day after the vote the number of Russian voters increased by 1.5mn people, Vedomosti reported. The extra names were added on the day to the voting protocol published by the Central Election Commission (CEC), which reported as of 9am on March 19 (the day after polls closed) there were 108.727mn names on the electoral register, according to CEC chairman Ella Pamfilova, which is 1.497mn more names than a day earlier when the polls opened. That is an increase of about 2%, which conveniently pushed Putin’s share of the vote just over the 50% mark when you redistribute his share of the actual vote of 72% and scale it down to account for the fact 67.47% of the voters turned out to vote, or about 73mn people from a total population of 143mn.

In previous elections in this tweaking process gave the United Russia party of power of just over 50% in 2011, and a constitutional majority of over 66% in the elections before that. These tweaks are small but the upshot is they make a substantial difference to the distribution of power. In the parliamentary election the winner of an absolute majority gets control of all the Duma committees that actually make the laws, whereas in 2008 a constitutional majority meant that while the newly appointed president Dmitry Medvedev could attempt to sack the then prime minister Putin, the Duma could overrule him with its supermajority vote.

1.5mn extra votes is the lower estimate for fake votes. In every election Sergei Shpilkin, a physicist and electoral statistician, has calculated just how many votes were added to the result using statistical techniques. Human nature means that officials tend to round numbers up to a five or one that ends in a zero, so there are spikes around whole numbers in the results. Secondly, the numbers in the results from each polling station should be perfectly randomly distributed if the vote is fair and it is very easy to see if they are not, a dead give away for cheating. The red hatched area in the chart below is the fake votes. The rounding up error spikes are also clearly visible.



Using these methods Shpilkin estimates that a total of 8mn votes were added to the count, but ironically this was probably the least number of votes the Kremlin ever had to add to get the results they wanted.

Shpilkin noted that the vote falsification level was "likely at a record low" and close to what he'd seen back in 2004, during Putin's second, conflict-free election.

Stepping back, the picture that emerges is that Russian voters actually threw their weight behind Putin. From the charts above it is important to note that while they clearly show the cheating they also show that the vast majority of votes – the green line – were genuinely for Putin and highlight the hybrid nature of Russia’s political system.

The 67% turnout figure is the highest ever and the 76.67% that Putin won is the highest ever. Even if you count out the extra votes then Putin still saw his popularity go up in real terms and the majority of Russians really do want him as president.

“The Russian president defeated his strongest opponent — voter apathy,” said Bloomberg commentator Leonid Bershidsky, summing up the real result of the election which was an unqualified win for the Kremlin.

The Kremlin achieved its 70/70 goal – at least 70% of the vote for Putin and (almost) hit the turnout goal of 70%. They actually missed the second one by a little, but officials were told not to overdo it and so undermine the legitimacy of the vote too much. But the turnout was genuinely high even if the number was padded. In the 1996 presidential election turnout in the first round was 69.8% and 69.4% in the second. In 2008 the turnout was more than 69%. At the last election in 2012, turnout was 65.3%. This year’s turnout, according to the results of counting 90% of the ballots, was about 67% — higher than the experts expected.

While ballot stuffing was widespread and very visible — there are already a collection of examples of extremely blatant examples on social media — overall these egregious examples are not going to lead to protests as they did following the 2011 Duma elections that saw public demonstrations in Moscow of over 100,000 people marching, some of which ended with violent clashes with the police. The fact that demonstrations are seen as very unlikely is the best testament to voters’ acceptance of the results.

Even correcting the official data for the padding would yield a respectable 60% turnout and almost 74% for Putin, says Bershidsky which is a landslide win in anyone’s system.

Finally, one of the standing jokes of Russian elections is that the southern regions that largely live on federal hand-outs return the largess with loyalty in elections. (In the last parliamentary elections United Russia won 107% of the vote in Chechnya.)

However, that doesn't work as well with the presidential elections. The chart below shows the share in regional budgets of federal funds above/below the national average plotted against Putin’s share of the vote above/below the over all final result.

The regions in Russia receive on average 31% of their budget funding from the centre, with Ingushetia and Chechnya receiving the most (88.7% and 84.4% respectively) and Moscow and St Petersburg almost the least (4.2% and 4.9%).

While there is some correlation between the share of federal subsidies a region receives and the vote they gave Putin, the relationship is not very strong. Putin did win more votes in the two Caucuses republics than elsewhere (6.5% and 14.7% more than his overall average of 76% respectively) but Moscow and St Petersburg, where the vote for Putin was expected to be low, were actually only just below average (-2.2% less than the average and -1.7% respectively).

All in all Putin did worst in Yakutia where he won he still won 64.35% of the vote, and with federal subsides making up 35.35% of the regional budget Yakutia gets only slightly more than the majority of regions.

The takeout is that despite his strongman image, Putin’s hold over the regions is not as solid as it first appears; he can’t just buy votes using state largess. In many poor regions like the Jewish Autonomous region (49% of regional budget is federal subsidies but Putin only won 67% of the vote) and the Altai region (39.7%, 64.2%) the subsidies are significant, but the vote was well below the national average. That means Putin commands some real popularity in both rich and poor regions and this popularity is not based on economics but probably has a lot more to do with the political message he has been sending that focus on “fortress Russia is under attack.”