MOSCOW BLOG: Putin to run for president in an election where the voters don’t matter

MOSCOW BLOG: Putin to run for president in an election where the voters don’t matter
Putin has ended months of speculation and announced that he will run in next year's presidential election. He would win a free and fair election as he is genuinely popular, but in Russia the people don't matter so the results will be rigged to assure the elite instead. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin December 8, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin ended months of speculation and officially declared his intention to run for re-election in 2024 on December 8.

Putin has held power since 2000 and will seek six more years in office after constitutional amendments in 2020 reset his term count. The Federation Council set the date of the election to March 17 next year only a day earlier.

Putin made the announcement during an awards ceremony for military personnel at the Kremlin in a remark to Lieutenant Colonel Artyom Zhoga, a Russian military officer. Zhoga quoted Putin as saying: "At the front everyone was worried, wondering whether Putin will run."

A video released later by the Kremlin on Telegram captured the moment when Zhoga asked Putin to stand for re-election.

Putin was widely expected to stand for election again. As bne IntelliNews reported a month ago, his campaign already seemed well under way, with the state media reporting on his hospital visit to reluctant sick children and trips to the regions to gladhand with voters.

And there are few expectations that the election will be free and fair. One the same day Russia’s Central Election Committee (CEC) chairwoman Ella Pamfilova announced that the elections will be a three-day affair for the first time for a presidential election, which NGOs say invite vote rigging, as it is more difficult for monitors and poll workers to prevent irregularities, especially with the storage of ballot boxes overnight at polling stations.

Pamfilova justified the change, saying that three-day voting has become a “tradition” in Russia's parliamentary votes, after it was initially introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic in a 2020 constitutional referendum that also reset the term-clock to zero clearing the way for Putin to run for another two terms in office.  

Additionally, the CEC has approved voting in "mobile polling stations" near residential buildings in certain Ukrainian territories and Russian regions near the Ukraine border. The electronic voting system will also be used and extended to 17 of the most populous regions, which NGOs say is easy to abuse.

Vote rigging

Russia has a long tradition of vote rigging that has become progressively more blatant the longer Putin has stayed in office.

Russia’s first ever presidential election of the modern era was held on June 12, 1991 and won by Boris Yeltsin with 57.3% of the vote shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yeltsin very nearly lost the second presidential elections in 1996, which were probably the fairest and most democratic in Russia’s history. He started with extremely low popularity ratings after his reforms were marred by chaos and economic collapse, but a group of oligarchs that had become super wealthy thanks to Yeltsin’s loans-for-shares privatisations allowed them to take over many of Russia’s most valuable companies, banded together and created an effective campaign to revive his popularity. US election experts were also flown in to help with the strategy, as Yeltsin’s main rival was Gennady Zhuganov, the head of the Communist Party (KPRF), which the US didn’t want to see elected.

Yeltsin won the first round on June 16, but only won 35.28% of the vote followed by Zyuganov’s 32.03%. The second round was held on July 3, 1996, where Yeltsin won 53.82% of the votes to Zyuganov’s 40.31% in a very close race.

Putin became acting president after Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on New Year’s Eve in 1999 due his failing health, and was formerly elected president the following July with 53% of the vote in an election that was considered largely free and fair, backed again by many of the same oligarchs that saved Yeltsin’s campaign in 1996.

However, since then the elections have become increasingly managed by the state as Putin’s hold on power increased. Russian elections have always been marred by blatant ballot stuffing, but after a system of electronic voting was introduced in 2021 parliamentary elections, the art of fixing the results has been raised to a new and much more effective level.

Famous Russian statistician Sergey Shpilkin has decisively shown proof of vote rigging in several of Russia’s previous elections and has caused several scandals in the past by highlighting discrepancies in the voting patterns that have departed from a “normal distribution” that is the hallmark of a truly random distribution. For example, in several elections the pro-Putin results spike around the number that end with a 0 or a 5, as election officials massaging the vote have a very human tendency to round results up in favour of their leader.

Shpilkin is credited with helping to inflame Russian voters' anger over the blatant vote rigging in the 2011 Duma election that led to large-scale street protests in the Russian capital.

The electronic voting system was only used in a handful of regions in 2021, but it has been expanded to cover 17 of Russia’s 62 regions for the presidential election covering the majority of the voting population. For example, exit polls in the 2021 elections showed that Russia’s communist party had decisively won the election in Moscow only to see the result overturned by the electronic vote count the next day

No opposition

Putin will not stand unopposed. Zhuganov is still the head of the KPRF and has stood in all the elections in the intervening years. But while he was a serious thorn in Yeltsin’s side in the 1990s, when the Duma had a lot more power, his star has faded as the Communist Party has been pushed into what is known as the “systemic opposition” – nominally an opposition party, but it regularly backs the Kremlin on all major legislative issues.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the firebrand leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), was another permanent fixture of Russian presidential elections and stood on a strongly nationalistic and anti-immigrant platform, but he died last year. His successor, Leonid Slutsky, is likely to participate but lacks Zhirinovsky’s charisma.

No one from the “non-systemic opposition” will run, as they have all been either jailed or have fled the country. During his more than two decades in power, Putin has systematically crushed any real opposition movement, a task made easier by the fissiparous and corrupt nature of Russia’s opposition movement.

Of the three most eligible non-systemic opposition leaders, Boris Nemtsov in 2015, a former deputy prime minister, was gunned down under the walls of the Kremlin in 2015.

The best-known opposition figure, opposition blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, was immediately jailed on his return to Russia from Germany in January 2021, where he was recovering from an attempt to assassinate him using the infamous Novichok military-grade position. This week it was reported that the establishment is preparing terrorist charges, and his sentence is expected to be increased to life in the near future.

And Ilya Yashin, the last prominent opposition leader to have stayed in Russia after Putin’s overt crackdown on the opposition following Navalny’s arrest, was also arrested and sentenced to eight and half years in prison this week last year.

Putin has won four presidential elections: 2000 (53.4%), 2004 (71.9%), 2012 (63.6%) and 2018 (76.7%). It has been reported that the Kremlin is hoping for a 70/70 result in next year’s elections: 70% of the vote and a 70% turnout.

The irony of Russia’s presidential elections is that if they were to be open and free then Putin would very likely win, and probably in the first round, as he remains genuinely very popular.

In the most recent poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), President Vladimir Putin's trust rating remained steady at 78.5%. The VTsIOM results mirror the most recent poll from the independent Levada Centre, which found Putin’s approval rating has increased in the last month to 85%, while his disapproval rating slid two percentage points to 13%.

The voters don’t matter

While Yeltsin is seen as a democratic hero in the West for ending Soviet rule, he is widely hated in Russia for being responsible for the economic pain and poverty most Russians had to live through during his leadership. On the other hand, they remain grateful for the stability and prosperity Putin brought after he took over that lifted the standard of living up to European levels during his two decades in power. Russia today is now by far the most prosperous of all the countries of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) that did not join the EU.

However, the population is not Putin’s constituents. The Kremlin elite is, especially the so-called siloviki, or security services faction. The large share of the vote and his sky-high popularity make him immune to palace coups, whereas having to fight real elections and winning by only a narrow margin, as just happened in Poland with Donald Tusk’s victory, means he would need political allies and that opens him up to manipulation and the machinations of the Kremlin elite.

Moreover, he has placed his loyal friends from his St Petersburg days at the head of many of Russia’s largest companies, like Alexei Miller who runs Gazprom or Igor Sechin who runs Rosneft. These apparatchiki have amassed huge fortunes at these companies, but in any change of leadership they would almost certainly be replaced by the friends of a new leader.

“And the easiest way to depose them would be to arrest them on corruption charges,” economists Sergei Guriev told bne IntelliNews during a previous election before he fled Russia into exile after he was accused of corruption himself.

When Yeltsin left office he did an immunity deal with Putin, who agreed not to change Yeltsin’s staff in the Kremlin, the so-called Family clique, for two years. While Putin would almost certainly do a similar deal for himself and could look forward to comfortable retirement, the same deal would not extend to his friends running Russia’s blue-chip companies. As a result they would have a strong motive to carry out a coup themselves and put someone in place that would protect their positions.