Author: Donatien Bertaud. Translated by: Uriel N’Gbatongo
« Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others » said Churchill. This is what Vladimir Putin understood for his march toward an absolute domination of the Russian political panorama.
Winning elections is a good thing. But winning elections without any risk of losing is even better.
Vladimir Putin has ensured his victory during 2018 elections without allowing any mishap. Secret for good elections is quite simple. First, he made sure the opponents who can run are not a real threat but whose presence and political results could be a nuisance. Thus, Boris Nemtsov, former vice-president of the Russian government and political opponent, had been murdered in front of the Kremlin (which has up to now no links with his opposition to Mr. Putin). This is not the only way he had to prevent potential nuisance to run for president. Indeed, Alexey Navalny, a media opponent of Putin, had been arrested repeatedly for the organization of unauthorized protests which disturbed the public order. Because of his multiple condemnations and his « deceitful » allegations (more particularly within the frame of his documentary about the supposed wealth of Dimitri Medvedev who could have received bribes in form of real estate propriety), he was barred from running due to previous condemnations of embezzlement. Once any dangerous opponents, or potential sources of trouble have been eliminated, you still need to find other opponents to allow a democratic debate. The communist party kindly offers a candidate. He was surprisingly a millionaire. This candidate is Pavel Groudinine, whose wealth come from his strawberry culture. He is a less fierce opponent of Putin than Alexey Navalny. Concerning the far-right they supported, Vladimir Jrinovski. He is an historic figure of Russian elections due to its fifth appearance in the elections. He represents a right-wing antisystem party. Nevertheless, he does not seem to be a real opponent.
If we take a look at Ksenia Sobtchak, analysts doubted of her sincerity because of her father’s links with the former mayor of St. Petersburg and V. Putin but she appeared to be, out of everyone expectation, a fierce opponent. Despite the doubts against her and her bad results, she left her print on the Russian political stage. At the announcement of her candidacy, some think-tanks for instance, the Russian section of the CSIS (Center for strategic and international studies), saw in her an opponent figure authorized by the Kremlin. One of the main parts of her campaign was education and the fight for the return of a real democracy in Russia. She did not hesitate to make harsh comments about Crimea, asserting that this territory was Ukrainian (while the date of the election was modified on purpose by V. Putin to coincide with the first anniversary of the Region’s independence). Furthermore, the candidate, who is a former reality TV star didn’t hesitate to go to the United States despite the accusations of collaboration with the enemy that were rising. She had been attacked over and over during the campaign by her opponents daring to claim that she was “a whore” on a national television program. But those internal conflicts didn’t manage to smear the image of V. Putin, who didn’t go low as to participate in public presidential debates.
As we are always told, V. Putin is extremely popular in Russia. A survey from the Levada center Russian survey institute, alleged in 2016 that Putin benefited from 83% of positive opinions from the population. Nevertheless, he doesn’t rely only on his popularity and wish to ascertain his victory by aiming goals set by himself and relayed to all public institutions. According to panelists of the CSIS, those goals were: 70% turn out and 70% of votes in favor of V. Putin. Even if the turn out wasn’t reached, the share of votes in favor of Putin was more than satisfactory. Suspicion of fraud still lingers. Indeed, a common practice in Russia is for the member of public administrations or people relying on state aids to be invited to vote for V. Putin. In order to prove it, they are asked to take a selfie of themselves with the ballot if they wish to keep those “advantages”. Even if a video surveillance system was installed in various circumscription in order to prevent fraud according to the campaign manager of Ms. Sobtchak, a fair number of videos of representing potential fraud acts were recorded. However, the state is unwilling to prosecute the accountable persons. As such, Putin succeed in obtaining a victory brilliant enough even if his new term was almost guaranteed by the weakness of the opposition.
A president whose stability at the head of the state is unshakable
“A strong president, a strong Russia.” With such a catch phrase the tone of the campaign was given. Putin aimed to demonstrate that he was the only one willing to put Russia on the foreground of the international stage. In addition, he didn’t fail to recall his last few years’ success to the Russian population all along the presidential race. First, he changed the date of the election to coincide with the first anniversary of the independence of Crimea by which he reaffirmed his position of protector of the ethnic Russian people. And he hit two birds with a single stone by showing is firm stance in front of the west and is capacity to be unyielding even facing economic sanctions. As it was insufficient two weeks before election day, the unveiling of new Russian weapon system capable of crossing the anti-missile protection of the continental US was a coup de maître, which allowed Putin to remind the Russian and the west that Russia was back. This was also a good way to divert attention from the subpar economic results of his last mandate. Indeed, even if Russia has known a shy return to growth in 2017, this growth didn’t manage to reach the prevision of the IMF. Moreover, the downfall of oil prices coupled with the fragility of the bank industry have led to a more important role of the state in the economy. The Russians have in fact mixed feelings toward the economic results of V. Putin. The survey of the Levada Center showed that only over 60% of the population was supporter of Putin’s employment policy. Nevertheless, Putin is limiting all form of contestation against his power and his party. This can be seen with modifications of the mode of election in response to United Russia or its supporters facing electoral difficulties. A surprisingly low result for his party United Russia in 2011, led to the modification of the election process. The voting system has shifted from being a proportional one to a dual one with half being elected proportionally and the other half directly by the citizens. It allowed the member of United Russia to run under their own name in the regions where the support for the party was weak. The same thing is happening on a local scale, the election of the mayor of the largest cities in Russia has shifted from being a direct one to an indirect one. This has been the case for Ekaterinburg the 4th largest city in Russia in which the election process was modified a few days after the election of Putin. It was due to the fact that the candidate chosen by Putin lost during the last election. As of today, only a tenth of major cities in Russia are electing directly their mayor. Putin has reestablished the vertical of power and is putting is ally in each and every echelon of the political stage.
As a result, Kremlin’s strongman is nowadays more than ever the undeniable leader of the Russian Federation. However, he stated that in contrary to Xi Jinping, he was unwilling to modify the constitution and therefore will not stay in power at the end of his 4th or 5th mandate (if we count the one of Dmitri Medvedev). Is he willing to leave power, or will he resort to another figurehead? The question is still pending, the appearance of a potential successor might be the only hint of a response.