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Is Putin’s leadership legitimate? A closer look at Russia’s elections

After vote rigging in Russia’s elections, Putin’s authority has been called into question. EPA/Alexey Nikolsky/Ria Novosti/Government Press Service Pool

The Russian presidential elections, held on 4 March, gave a solid electoral win to the President-elect Vladimir Putin. But much of the Western press saw it as a tainted victory. With allegations of election rigging and large public demonstrations in various Russian cities, many observers claimed Putin’s presidency is now fatally wounded.

With representatives of the Russian opposition lining up to criticise the election outcome and much of the Western press simply accepting what they say at face value, perhaps it is time to take a better look at what actually happened.

The push for fairness

The lead-up to this election was like none before it. The December 2011 legislative election had stimulated popular protest on the part of opposition supporters who argued, on the basis of a large amount of anecdotal evidence, that the election had been fraudulent because of widespread tampering with the vote.

These demonstrations were biggest in Moscow, but occurred elsewhere in the country as well, and had extended the theme of the “stolen election” to embrace the call for “Russia without Putin”.

There thus seemed to be a groundswell, how large was uncertain, both to ensure the fairness of the forthcoming presidential poll and to defeat Putin in that poll.

“Russia without Putin” has become the slogan for the anti-Putin opposition in Russia. EPA/Sergei Ilinstky

In response to these protests, Putin introduced two measures to the presidential electoral process designed to combat fraud: the placement of webcams in polling stations and the use of transparent ballot boxes to guard against ballot box stuffing.

As the election approached, all sides were, therefore, conscious of the question of fraud tainting the election. Indeed, the opposition even organised a protest demonstration for the day after polling in order to protest against the fraud they were convinced would occur.

Was the election fraudulent?

Reports have come in from private election monitors and monitors sent to Russia by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe referring to cases of what the OSCE called “procedural irregularities”. The opposition and some of the private monitors have been more direct referring to fraud.

While it is impossible to measure how extensive fraud was, it is likely that it was nowhere near on the scale as claimed by the opposition. Five candidates faced the electors on Sunday, with Putin receiving some 63% of the vote. Election forecasts conducted by the three main polling agencies showed support for Putin as follows:

Levada Centre

16-20 Dec 11 20-23 Jan 12 17-20 Feb 12
63% 63% 66%


28-29 Jan 12 4-5 Feb 12 11-12 Feb 12 18-19 Feb 12
54.6% 58.7% 60.0% 58.7%


11-12 Feb 12 25-26 Feb 12
58.6% 59.9%

Putin’s final vote was within the range of these polls, but even if we exclude the Levada Centre figure, allowing for a margin of error, the likely dimension of any fraud would be only a couple of percentage points. This was nowhere near enough to change the election result or even to force the ballot into a second round. This would have happened if Putin had received less than 50% of the vote.

No fair fight

More important than any fraudulent activity on the day of the voting was the way in which, as the OSCE noted, the conditions under which the election took place were skewed in favour of Putin. This included the judicious use of electoral regulations to limit candidates, the biased nature of the media, and the access enjoyed by Putin alone to the vast resources of the state ensured. All these factors ensured it was not a fair contest.

But it would be a mistake to attribute Putin’s success only to these factors. Putin has remained genuinely popular with large sections of the Russian people. He has projected a “tough guy” image which has had wide appeal, and he has been popularly associated with policies deemed to have brought about both greatly improved conditions at home and the re-emergence of Russian power abroad.

Russian Prime Minister and President elect Vladimir Putin with his preliminary results. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

This popularity is enhanced by the fact that he has really not had to face anyone who could unite oppositionist forces behind them and mount an effective mass appeal. The inability of the opposition to either unite or produce an electable leader has been a major factor in Putin’s success.

Putin’s authority

But does this mean his presidency is weakened, or even illegitimate as some oppositionists claim? It is important in this regard not to exaggerate the protest demonstrations.

While they have been important events, the protests are not mobilising enormous numbers of people onto the streets. The largest number reported in the post-December 2011 protests was about 125,000 in Moscow, although police reports suggest the actual figure was much lower. The protest on 5th March is said to have numbered about 20,000.

In a city of nine million people, even the 125,000 figure is a very small percentage. And many fewer are protesting outside Moscow. There is not a wave of mass protest at this stage calling Putin’s victory into question. Indeed when anti- and pro-Putin protests were held on 4th February, the pro-Putin rally was larger.

Change is possible?

But it may be less the size of the demonstrations than what they are seen to mean that is important. The demonstrations raise the question of whether political change is a possibility in Russia, and as reflected in the words of the protesters, they declare that it is.

If this idea catches on, and someone can pick it up and use it to garner popular support, it may be that the sentiment for change will spread further than it currently appears. But until that happens, Putin seems secure in the presidency for the foreseeable future.

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