Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“He was tired, but proud and contented”

Election as imitation
20 March, 2018 - 11:46
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

The 2018 Russian presidential election featured an exceptionally sluggish, pro forma campaign, which could not be enlivened even by clown-like acts, and a predictable result which was known in advance, several months before the voting day. Because of the non-systemic opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s call to boycott the election, the main intrigue was not about how many votes Vladimir Putin and other candidates would get, but what the turnout would be. As readers of The Day surely remember, I have long predicted that the final tally of voters who do turn out will be within the 65 to 70 percent range, and the incumbent president will receive 75 to 80 percent of the vote, most likely 78 percent. And so it happened. As I am writing these lines, the turnout stands at 67.49 percent of the electorate, and Putin gets about 76.66 percent of the vote with 99.83 percent of the precincts reporting. The remaining 0.17 percent of the vote will not change anything.

And this is despite the fact that the actual turnout, in my estimation, was somewhere between 45 and 55 percent. Hence, about 20 percent of the ballots were somehow stuffed. Either they were actually stuffed directly into the ballot boxes by individual members of election commissions or pro-Putin activists, which was recorded on video cameras or mobile phones and distributed over social networks as video clips by Navalny’s headquarters (tellingly, the Central Election Commission (CEC) annulled the results only at one precinct in the Lyubertsy District), and also by falsifying the final returns (this is especially true for Chechnya and other North Caucasian republics), or it was done by busing voters to the polls (that is why the voting was most intense in the morning, literally starting at 8 a.m., which never happens in a normal election) and putting pressure on government employees and students through their superiors (they were required not only to come and vote, but also to present a photocopy of the ballot at their place of work or study, even if not completed). It can be assumed that the overwhelming majority of the voters who were bused and forced to the polls voted for Putin, fearing the regime’s wrath. And, of course, the overwhelming majority of the stuffed ballots and falsified returns came in support of the dear leader.

The presidential administration faced a somewhat important problem here. Judging by the first results from the east of the country, the turnout exceeded the corresponding figures for 2012 by 10 percentage points. Were this to go on, there was a real risk that the turnout would reach 75 percent or more, and the share of votes cast for Putin would exceed 85 percent. In this case, the final tally would be quite comparable to the Uzbek or Kazakh ones, but Putin clearly does not want to be perceived in the West as one of the irreplaceable rulers of the Central Asian despotic regimes. However, the Kremlin administration (and, possibly, the apparatus of Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin) fully controlled the election process in real time. Quite easily, they reached the set goals both on the turnout and on the share of votes for Putin, which was to come to just under 80 percent. No problems arose. After all, there were really no independent observers at the vast majority of polling stations. The special “know-how” of this campaign was a large number of fake pro-Putin observers, representing not parties and organizations but “ordinary voters.” Thus, opposition observers were eliminated from the overwhelming majority of commissions. Putin even promised in an interview to the American media that he would not amend the constitution and run for presidency in 2024. Well, he certainly will not. As he did already, Dmitry Medvedev will be running in his stead. And Putin will again become prime minister. He has promised some changes in the government after the inauguration. I think that they will be purely cosmetic in character, and Medvedev will remain in office.

The real intrigue of the current election was the race for the second place between Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Pavel Grudinin. Opinion polls which were conducted at the beginning of the campaign showed that the candidates from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) were, so to say, going neck and neck. However, the CPRF apparatus then probably carried out a campaign to mobilize activists in favor of Grudinin. The latter, perhaps, was even helped by the scandal with his active foreign accounts. According to the letter of the law, the CPRF candidate should have been removed from the race. However, in this case, unlike the case of Navalny, the CEC, led by that personification of the political innocence who is called Ella Pamfilova, showed creativity and left Grudinin on the ballot. Still, the undecided voters probably decided that since the authorities pestered Grudinin so much with these accounts, it meant that the Kremlin does not like him for some reason, so it was better to vote for him, and not for the regime’s tame candidate Zhirinovsky. As a result, Grudinin received 11.79 percent of the vote to Zhirinovsky’s mere 5.66 percent. I think the Kremlin here did not interfere in the distribution of votes, and these figures reflect the real ratio of the popularity of the two candidates.

But the other dwarf candidates, whose results fall within the statistical error, got the results drawn in the Kremlin. Ksenia Sobchak was put in the first place among them with 1.67 percent, Grigory Yavlinsky was given 1.04 percent (falling below one percent line would have been too much disgrace for the politician). All the rest received less than one percent, but Boris Titov bested Maxim Suraykin, and the latter did the same to Sergey Baburin (the difference between them amounts to a few hundredths of a percent). Characteristically, all seven candidates were just obedient sparring partners of Vladimir Putin and never criticized the incumbent president. Sobchak will now try to create a liberal party which would be completely controlled from the Kremlin by gathering those who supported Titov and Yavlinsky, and, ideally, some of the supporters of Navalny. But she is unlikely to succeed in this. Few will want to contact an openly puppet party.

Alexander Myasnikov, a doctor who is close to Putin, offered an inspired opinion at a Russian TV channel: “I stood a stone’s throw away from Putin at the Gostiny Dvor. And I saw that he was tired, but proud and contented.” I think that this expression of feelings by the president for his loyal public was a complete imitation as well. Judging by the way how Putin abandoned the campaign altogether for two weeks after the Syrian defeat of the Vagnerites, it is clear that he felt strongly that everything that was happening around him in connection with the election was of no importance to him, as were the voters and his own surrogates. After all, the outcome of the campaign was predetermined many months before it began, and Putin’s speeches during the campaign and pro forma meetings with the voters could not affect anything, not just the distribution of final positions, but even the distribution of votes among the various candidates. Everything was drawn in advance in the presidential administration. And it was therefore absolutely superfluous to poison Sergey Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade toxic substance of distinctly Russian origin in the UK, in order to provoke British sanctions and thereby to unite the electorate around the national leader even more. After the election, Russia will have to deal with the consequences of the Salisbury attack for a very long time.

Boris Sokolov is a Moscow-based professor