Thoughts on Putin’s Win

After all the fuss, Putin actually won the Russian Presidential Election pretty comfortably. As I write this, 99.3% of the votes have been counted, and Putin got 63.75% of them and his nearest challenger (Gennady Zyuganov, of course) scored a mere 17.19%.

There’s a lot to think about after the election, and I thought I’d follow Anatoly Karlin and offer a few of my thoughts on the outcome of the weekend’s excitement.

Cheating

Cheat? Me?

After the December’s Duma election debacle, I had held out some hope that the Presidential election would be a bit fairer and increased scrutiny (via webcam, no less) might temper the fraud we’ve seen previously. Alas, I can’t really see any improvement worthy of note and Russian elections still don’t pass the smell test.

Although some of the claims of fraud in the vote itself are a little over the top (as Anatoly rightly points out, carousel buses aren’t enough to swing an election), it’s horribly depressing to see that the problems we experienced in the Duma election are still there. It is worrying that Putin’s share of the vote is a good 5% higher than the exit polls indicated.

And, of course, Putin still has an absurd 99% support in Chechya, as well as more than 90% support in four other Russian regions (Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachey-Cherkessia and Tuva). As I’ve mentioned previously, fraud in just a few regions can easily add a couple of percent to Putin’s vote.

Moving on to the media coverage. An ‘establishment’ figure like Putin is always going to have a slight advantage when it comes to getting press and tv coverage. But the sheer volume of coverage that Putin gets in comparison to his rivals doesn’t seem to have changed for the better – I’d wager he got more air time during the campaign than all his rivals combined. The debate on the internet was vibrant and refreshing, but most voters don’t get exposed to it much and so it can not yet be considered a substitute for the power of traditional media.

Putin is genuinely popular

Strip away all of Putin’s advantages, and he would still have won the election comfortably.

Whatever you think of him, Putin is a genuinely popular politician in Russia. Almost every Russian has seen their income and their quality of life improve over the past decade, and it’s not surprising that they credit him for making Russia stronger (although you could argue that one of the reasons they give him this credit is because of Russia’s sycophantic media).

Although Putin will be a bit worried about his reduced share of the vote compared to previous years (Medvedev scored 71% in 2008 and Putin himself scored 72% in 2004) it’s not really all that much of a difference. The real damage to his aura of invincibility won’t come from the election result, it will come from a reinvigorated opposition.

Weak, but strengthening opposition

One of the main reasons that Putin has had such an easy ride over the past decade is that there has been no opposition to speak of. And this year’s election was no different – at least, when it came to the candidates. When the best candidate the opposition can muster is Gennady Zyuganov who himself managed to poll almost as many votes as the 3rd, 4th and 5th placed finishers combined, targeting an election victory involves little more than aiming at fish in a barrel.

There were some really encouraging signs, though, and the street protests that we saw demonstrated (sorry, poor pun) that there are people out there who strongly want an alternative. They made the current grey crop of opposition leaders sit up and change their strategy slightly, and they inspired someone new (Prokhorov) to get involved in politics.

I expect the protests to die off pretty quickly after the election, but I think in 6 years time they will have proved tremendously valuable in kickstarting a genuinely engaging opposition movement in Russia. I have no idea what that opposition will look like – will it be co-opted by the current opposition or will a new grouping emerge? But I’m fascinated to see how it develops.

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