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EPA/Sergei Chirikov

Putin is sure to win, so what’s the point of elections in Russia?

The result of the imminent presidential election in Russia won’t surprise anyone. The incumbent, Vladimir Putin, will be reelected for the fourth time until 2024, to become Russia’s longest serving ruler since Stalin.

Putin’s victory will be based on two contradictory factors. On the one hand, he is genuinely popular in Russia, with most opinion polls giving him 80% approval ratings. On the other, the electoral system is so heavily skewed in his favour, Putin’s actual popularity is irrelevant to the voting outcome.

Given the certainty of the outcome, why do Russian authorities bother with elections at all? In liberal democracies, contested elections and regular change of government are the hallmarks of democratic legitimacy. Elections clearly do not perform this role in Russia as there hasn’t been a change of government by ballot box since 1991.

Instead, elections in Russia legitimise its political regime. In addition to international recognition, Russia’s post-Soviet transition from the Soviet one-party state produced a domestic consensus on the necessity of multi-candidate elections. So, elections still take place, but they’re heavily controlled and don’t lead to a change in government. What we have in Russia is, therefore, a form of electoral authoritarianism.

What matters in Russian elections

While a change of leadership is not on the cards, there are some important developments to watch out for. Putin’s legitimacy will depend on the turnout and his share of votes. He has to get at least 50% in the first round to avoid a runoff, but ideally would like to increase the share of the vote from the last elections in 2012, when he secured 63% of votes with a 65% turnout.

A high result for Putin in Crimea, which votes for the first time in Russian presidential elections, would, in particular, be seen by Putin as vindication of his most important foreign policy action.

The relative legitimacy of elections also depends on other candidates running and votes being counted fairly. At the parliamentary elections in December 2011, the perception of widespread electoral fraud led to mass protests across Russia.

There should be no need for fraud because the electoral system is tightly controlled anyway (though cheating still remains an option). This includes de facto control of who is allowed to participate in the elections and control of the main media, especially TV. To control spending, businesses are barred from supporting candidates not authorised by the Kremlin. State and public resources are used to support the incumbent candidate. State employees are under pressure to vote for Putin.

Putin supporters gather to see him in Crimea. EPA/Sergei Chirikov

To boost legitimacy and voter turnout, the Kremlin tries to ensure a representation of candidates reflective of voter preferences. The strongest challenger is the Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin, followed by a veteran ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The liberal protest voters can vote for Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal politician, and Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old well-known TV host and a leading opposition voice (but who also happens to be a daughter of Putin’s old boss from his days in St Petersburg).

None of these candidates pose serious danger to Putin. Grudinin, who has the highest poll ratings after Putin, was discovered to have 13 personal bank accounts in Switzerland, not a great message to send out for a Communist. Sobchak is still notorious for her former role as presenter in Russian TV’s version of Big Brother and anyway deliberately appeals only to radical liberal voters. In the meantime, the most popular opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has been banned from running.

All this makes Russian voting not really free and certainly unfair, more akin to a plebiscite on Putin’s popularity rather than a genuine election.

Challenges for the opposition

Despite the serious impediments faced by the opposition, the real stumbling block to challenging Kremlin dominance is voter apathy.

Putin runs a soft authoritarian regime that combines political control with wide individual freedoms. In addition to private property and other economic freedoms – freedom to travel, civic freedoms – there is also pluralist print media and a vibrant Russian-language internet. Even in politics, authorities target individual opposition figures, rather than wider societal groups or parties.

Russia is a relatively wealthy country, especially compared with its immediate neighbours such as Ukraine. And although living standards have declined over recent years, they are still higher than in the 1990s. All of this make mass protest less urgent.

Nevertheless, Russia needs economic reform to lift incomes and move towards a more sustainable model for growth. Putin recently outlined his vision for reform, including more money for healthcare and infrastructure (although that part was overshadowed by his bragging about new nuclear weapons). But it’s unclear if the current leadership is able to implement substantial reforms without endangering the overall system built on patronage and disregard for formal rules.

The main danger for Putin is another economic shock sparking mass protests. There has already been economic discontent, for example, at the introduction of road tariffs for heavy goods vehicles, as well as more politically oriented protests by the young, urban middle-class led by Navalny. The key is whether two different protests can merge into a unified mass movement with a clear political agenda. Even then, the authorities will still have ample opportunity to split such opposition by offering concessions to some groups, and isolating others.

Russia’s future

Russia is no stranger to sudden regime change having witnessed two sweeping revolutions in the past hundred years. However, it’s different now. Socialism in 1917 and democratisation in the late 1980s were seen as solutions to the country’s problems. There is no similar consensus for change today. The majority of the population is indifferent to politics, while the most popular ideology – great power nationalism – was completely appropriated by Putin after the annexation of Crimea.

It seems likely that Russia will continue on its current course, which increasingly looks like stagnation. But the longer necessary changes are delayed, the higher the chance of a violent, sudden transformation in Russian affairs.

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