In an article this week titled “A Moscow Spring?”, the correspondent for the Economist claims that Vladimir Putin “seems determined to win the presidential election on the first round, even though this will require overt rigging”. The correspondent is right about Putin’s determination to secure a resounding victory which confirms his self-proclaimed status as Russia “natural leader”. He’s wrong that overt rigging will be required to do so. Without any rigging at all I’m quite confident that Putin would win 60% of the vote, well over the 50% he requires to avoid a second round. Here's why...
In December’s parliamentary elections Putin’s party, United Russia officially gained 49.5% of the vote. Although it is hard to say how much this total was inflated by various illegitimate tactics, I think the ruling party probably gained closer to 40% of the vote. Considering their monopoly on free to air TV, their vastly greater financial resources and and their ability to control entry to the political system (it’s almost impossible for groups which genuinely threaten the ruling party to register), this is not a very impressive result, and reflects general discontent with the direction the country is going. Since then, some Russians, most notably middle class Facebook-users (the vast majority of Russians use vKontakte instead of Facebook) in Moscow, have expressed further discontent through the ‘fair elections’ meetings which have gained so much publicity in the West.
The discontent is real. And it does extend beyond the Moscow middle class. United Russia’s unimpressive performance in December proved that, and I’m yet to meet someone who is really excited about the prospect of a third Putin presidency. However, this discontent will not lead a majority of Russians to reject Putin at the ballot box on 4th March.
In part, this is thanks to Putin’s enduring popularity among a large part of Russia’s population, who appreciate his achievements in the early 2000s when his strong leadership got the nation back on its feet. However, it is the haplessness of the opposition candidates which really guarantees a comfortable, possibly even resounding victory for Putin.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky is widely derided as a clown. Mikhail Prokhorov, however hard he tries to appear down to earth (I saw him this week rapping in broken English on Russia’s equivalent of Friday Night with Jonathan Ross), comes from the most disliked group in Russian society - the oligarchs. Gennady Zyuganov is a Communist, and nobody seriously wants to go there again. And most people don’t know who Sergei Moronov is. Over the next few days I’ll put together a profile of each one of them and explain why, if I was voting in Russia, I’d probably do what my host, 75-year old Tamara wants to do, and vote “Protiv vsex” (Against everyone).