Last Friday (23 March), the official result of Russia’s presidential election of 18 March was confirmed. By a record-breaking margin, Vladimir Putin was re-elected as the president of the Russian Federation – his fourth such election victory since the turn of the century, and his most convincing win to date.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a televised address to the nation in Moscow on March 23, 2018, following the announcement of the presidential election official results. Credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images
With the British government’s relationship with Russia currently at its worst in decades, however, it conspicuously failed to congratulate him. On British television, meanwhile, the election was framed as ‘fake’ in BBC reports prior to polling day.
But are Russian elections as undemocratic as they are made out to be? And are ours as democratic as we would wish?
This is the central question posed in my book Parliamentary Elections in Russia: A Quarter-Century of Multiparty Politics, which is published this week by the British Academy/Oxford University Press. It examines the evolution of the political and electoral system of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. When Putin was first elected in 2000 (at which time Bill Clinton was still US president and Tony Blair was the fresh-faced prime minister of Britain!), Russia was in crisis.
“In 2000, 38% of people had not been paid their salaries at some point in the previous 12 months.”
The country had recently survived a banking collapse and rouble devaluation which had robbed most people of their limited savings. Moreover, according to the New Russia Barometer VIII survey in spring 2000, 38% of people had not been paid their salaries at some point in the previous 12 months.
The three pillars of support for Putin
Set against this background, the popularity of Putin over nearly two decades was not inevitable from the outset – and nor was it based only on authoritarian suppression. My research with colleagues in Malmö University’s Russia and the Caucasus Regional Research platform (RUCARR) has shown Putin’s support to be based on three pillars – stabilisation after the chaos of the 1990s; economic growth and rising living standards after a decade of decline; and the restoration of Russia’s international position in the world.
Having enjoyed consistently high approval ratings throughout his time in office, three out of four voters cast their ballots for him in this election – suggesting that Russia’s more assertive foreign policy since 2014 has compensated in the public mind for slowing economic growth. But as the protests after the 2011-12 elections showed, the regime needs to maintain popular support to remain legitimate.
Support for Putin based on real policy preferences and dilemmas
Whilst few argue that Russia is a textbook example of a liberal democracy, we should not just dismiss its elections as pointless, nor Putin’s victories as illegitimate. In Parliamentary Elections in Russia, I examine turnout and voting behaviour in elections going back to the 1990s. The analysis shows that the party system has been shaped by successive reforms and registration hurdles – but the parties and politicians that have survived this flux have built up distinct electoral niches that sustain them from election to election. Widespread support for Putin – and for the dominant United Russia party – is based on real policy preferences and dilemmas.
Electoral authorities striving to ensure more transparency
As for the integrity of the electoral process, high-profile individual cases of super-high turnout or statistically curious results distract our attention from the fact that most regions in Russia have average turnout and only support United Russia by a plurality. Allegations of malpractice tend to cluster around particular regions – and the worst cases are often prosecuted internally by the electoral authorities, which in recent years has been striving to ensure more transparency.
Russian Central Election Commission meeting on results of 2018 Russian presidential election. Credit: Stoyan Vassev/TASS/Getty Images
For example, the TV footage of ballot stuffing that has been used to frame last week’s election as undemocratic actually emanated from the Russian Central Electoral Commission itself, which installed CCTV cameras in the majority of polling stations to guard against interference with ballot boxes. Catching lower-level officials red-handed, the CEC annulled results in 14 polling stations (to set this into perspective: out of over 96,000) where there was uncertainty over the results.
The formal checks that have increasingly been put in place by the electoral law and CEC – including hundreds of international observers and thousands of domestic ones; remote-access CCTV; and the publication of results down to the level of individual polling stations – far exceeds the level of available transparency in a typical British election.
“Catching lower-level officials red-handed, the CEC annulled results in 14 polling stations (to set this into perspective: out of over 96,000) where there was uncertainty over the results.”
Putin’s next big challenge
Endowed with his record-breaking result, Putin’s next big challenge will come over the next six years. Russia is undoubtedly in a much better state of economic development than it was at the turn of the century, and the election has imbued him with fresh legitimacy. But with growth beginning to plateau and memories of the 1990s chaos beginning to fade, there is a need for renewal that will be challenging to put into effect after 18 years at the helm. The Kremlin’s attention will now be focused on how to sustain the system beyond 2024, the year of the next presidential election. At that point, Putin will either need to find a successor or legal way of remaining in office, as he will once again (as in 2008) be at the end of his second consecutive term.
With no obvious succession plan in place, and with the leaders of all the main parliamentary parties in their sixties or seventies, the danger is of a systemic crisis of stagnation or vacuum. Parliamentary Elections in Russia explains how the system got to here; but where it goes now, and how a smooth transition can be effected, is the key question for the coming years.
I am grateful to Prof. Ian McAllister and Prof. Stephen White for permission to use post-election survey data from previous elections to reach some of the above conclusions (full details quoted in the book).
The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy but are commended as contributing to public debate.