Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin won re-election to the Presidency of the Russian Federation yesterday in an election result that surprised absolutely no one.
Putin’s circus comes to town
With Alexei Navalny, the most popular of Putin’s possible rivals, barred from the race (thanks to an embezzlement conviction Navalny claims was fabricated by the Kremlin) Putin never faced serious opposition in this race.
That is not to say he faced no competition – there were seven other opponents on the ballot. Dubbed collectively as ‘the Circus’ in the Russian media, Putin’s opponents provided a veneer of legitimacy to the election but, thanks to their behavior, never posed a realistic threat.
During a debate in late February (which Putin naturally did not attend) Ksenia Sobchak, the only female candidate in the race, was repeatedly called an idiot by Liberal Democratic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Eventually Sobchak had enough and threw a glass of water at her abuser.
While perhaps not the best way to come across to voters as a serious candidate, Zhirinovsky is well known for his sexist rants, and Sobchak will not be the first person tempted to douse him with water.
Team Zhiranovsky fought back, however. In sub-zero temperatures the next week Sobchak herself was knocked to the ground and doused with water by a Zhirinovsky supporter.
As a reformist candidate who opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sobchak had an important viewpoint to be represented in an election. As a woman with a show-biz past, she was never likely to break through with the electorate in conservative Russia, however. Which is why, unlike Navalny, she was probably allowed to run.
Turnout was the real race
With the result never in doubt, Putin’s campaign was focused much more on boosting turnout to make the result look legitimate. And in this respect, at least, the regime had a bad election.
As of 9pm GMT last night, turnout was projected to be a mere 60%. That would be a very high figure by American standards, but is a drop from the 65% turnout in the 2012 election and far below the stated campaign goal of 70%.
This is despite some pretty extreme lengths taken by the Kremlin to get Russians to the polls. The Russian edition of Maxim magazine, for example, ran a get-out-the-vote campaign featuring lingerie models. Maxim‘s Editor in Chief Alexander Malenkov was coy about why he had decided to run the campaign, explaining that although it looked absurd, it was “one of numerous compromises” he had to make.
More bizarre was an unofficial, professionally-produced viral video making the rounds before the election. It portrayed a distopian future where the wrong candidate has won the election, with men as old as 52 being conscripted to the military and being forced to partner up with gay men who fail to find a partner on their own (yes, for real – see below).
The Russian people – the real losers
Even a casual observer of Russian media would have to conclude that Vladimir Putin is a genuinely popular politician. But that popularity is maintained in part thanks to a sycophantic press and very little public scrutiny. In other words, Putin would likely not be as popular with Russians if there was a free and fair media climate and free and fair elections.
Whether the legitimacy of his election is hurt at all by the projected 60% turnout remains to be seen. The 2018 election marks the first time when some voters will have been born during since Putin’s first election in 2000, and with every year that passes there are millions more Russians who cannot remember a time before his reign. That cannot bode well for the future of Russian democracy.