Putin's sham victory — the winner fakes it all


Donnacha Ó Beacháin

March 19, 2024

The politics professor looks at the elections deemed fraudulent in Russia that see Putin clinch another term as leader.

UNDER VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia has transitioned from a competitive authoritarian system, in which meaningful competition was permitted despite the abuse of administrative resources, to a façade electoral regime, thinly disguising an outright dictatorship.

Given that elections are not convened to determine who will govern, one might reasonably ask what the point is of conducting them at all. However, managed elections play an important role in maintaining a veneer of regime legitimacy.

The Kremlin understands that elections are necessary to maintain the fiction that Russia is a democracy and require more than one candidate (an advance on the pre-Gorbachev Soviet era). But power has never changed hands in Russia because of an election. Faking democracy is designed to preserve presidential power in perpetuity.

Rules of the game

Russian presidential elections are conducted under a second-ballot majoritarian system, although the incumbent is invariably elected in the first round. Constitutionally, Putin should have been ineligible to run given that presidents are limited to two terms in total.

The laws of the land, however, are designed to protect the political elite from the people rather than vice versa. Or as Garry Kasparov put it: ‘In chess, the rules are fixed and the outcome is unpredictable, whereas in Putin’s Russia, the rules are unpredictable and the outcome is fixed’.

When Putin first exhausted his two-term limit in 2008, he installed his loyal sidekick Dmitry Medvedev while Putin ostensibly played second fiddle as prime minister.

Medvedev dutifully amended the constitution to increase the presidential term from four to six years so that when Putin ‘returned’ in 2012, he was guaranteed another dozen years in office. Of course, this wasn’t enough for a putative president for life and consequently, a new constitution was introduced in 2020. Although it limited a president to two six-year terms, Putin acted as if his previous decades as president had been annulled, and so from 2024 another 12 years beckon.

How the ‘election’ works

Prospective independent candidates face Herculean tasks before they can get on the ballot paper. They must first create an initiative group composed of no less than five hundred public figures, before quickly collecting 300,000 signatures supporting their candidacy. No more than 7,500 signatures can be from any one region, which means endorsements must be garnered from throughout Russia, where there are more than eighty federal regions spanning eleven time zones.

Apart from creating a daunting obstacle for would-be challengers, the collection of a vast number of supporting signatures serves another purpose. It conveniently provides the Kremlin with a list of non-Putin supporters.

As in Soviet times, it’s not the candidate being tested at election time but the system. Elections in Russia are elaborate affairs, which require immense organisational efforts, not least because voters are continuously being asked to endorse the status quo.

Elections enable the regime to gauge the efficiency of regional governors in overseeing the mobilisation of the electorate to deliver high turnouts and to fine-tune the regime apparatus. Regional governors in turn oversee their subordinates, down to the level of factory bosses, directors of local state institutions, and university rectors. How well they deliver the vote helps the ruling elite establish who merits promotion or demotion or how best to allocate state resources to reward or repress.

Potemkin campaign

In this election, the political elite constructed a façade of pluralism by running four candidates representing three political parties. The presence on the ballot paper of ‘opposition’ candidates – if only of the most nominal and ephemeral kind – aimed to reinforce the impression that this was a competition.

Given that none of the other candidates had the temerity to criticise Putin, it’s inaccurate to describe them as adversaries.

As in the warm-up gladiatorial acts of old, the role of these faux oppositionists is to provide pseudo-challengers for the star of the stage and expire gracefully in public view. The decisive manner by which they are dispatched emphasises the power of the victor and the impossibility of challenging him. Most real opponents in Russia are either in prison, exiled or dead. When two anti-war candidates tried to get on the ballot paper this year both were barred because of alleged irregularities in their applications.

Lack of real competition sucked any energy from the campaign. This was an election without any debate between the candidates while the Kremlin monopolised media coverage. Neither Putin nor his token challengers felt obliged to produce manifestos.

Impression management

This was the first time in a Russian presidential election that voting took place over three days. Additionally, electronic voting was available to more than a third of the electorate. Both innovations provided additional opportunities to falsify results. After all, in Russia, it’s not so much the vote that counts, but who counts the votes.

Putin manufactured a landslide election victory that completely eclipsed his three handpicked ‘rivals’. Despite being almost a quarter century at the helm, the president’s official popularity ratings officially remain stratospheric with support from almost 90% of his compatriots.

In the occupied Ukrainian regions (euphemistically called ‘new territories’) the Kremlin’s official register of voters, based on the pre-war population, bore little resemblance to reality as so many have been killed or exiled. But, as with the rest of the election, this is not about the accuracy of the vote but the projection of power. Holding elections in these areas – albeit at gunpoint and under martial law – is designed to give an outward impression of normality and effective control.

Independent election monitoring such as that provided by the OSCE no longer takes place in Russia. Instead, the Kremlin has increasingly sought the flattering assessments of the (Russian-dominated) Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. More recently, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, composed mainly of non-democracies, has also proven useful in providing observers to validate elections with glowing reports.

Unsurprisingly, Putin has received congratulations from kindred autocrats around the world. The first to extend congratulations was Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who without irony described Putin as ‘big brother’. Similar salutations soon followed from the leaders of China, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Cuba, Myanmar, Syria and North Korea. European Council president Charles Michel was more tongue in cheek when he congratulated Putin on Friday, just as the three days of voting was beginning.

How Putin leaves

Russia’s presidential election took place during what can only be described as a global democratic recession. Only one in eight of the world’s population lives in a liberal democracy like Ireland while around 70 percent live in autocracies.

If Putin lives to the end of this presidential term, he will have surpassed Stalin’s 26 years in power by some distance. Like all dictators, Putin would like to die quietly in his bed after a reign of several decades but knows he risks ending his days ignominiously, even violently.

Only last summer Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebel army marched on Moscow with virtually no resistance. When the Soviet Union imploded, Boris Yeltsin created a weak, corrupt autocracy before handing over power to Putin in return for guaranteeing his security and fortune. Putin seems incapable of trusting anyone to the same extent. For that reason, if no other, Putin most likely plans to leave the Kremlin horizontally.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University. For more than two decades he has worked and researched in the post-Soviet region and has been published widely on the subject.