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On March 18, Russians will head to the polls, and they will re-elect Vladimir Putin as their president. The conclusion is foregone.
And yet his behavior of late hardly resembles that of someone with a guaranteed victory. He has gone to great lengths to sideline potential rivals, he has demonized his favorite strawman, the United States, and he has hyped Russian military advancements. The entire political machine is working on his behalf. Reports have surfaced that students in Tatarstan have been bribed with better grades if they vote. It seems that Putin is trying awfully hard for someone running virtually unopposed.
The explanation for his behavior is simple: If Putin is preordained to win, then the election becomes a referendum on whether the Russian people will abide a system in which they, essentially, have no choice. This makes voter turnout all the more important. If legitimacy is the basis for power, then the elections will provide some insight into how many Russians believe Putin’s power is legitimate.
The government understands low turnout would be bad for Russia, and indeed it has reason to worry about voter turnout. Though Russia’s Public Opinion Research Center said that almost 80 percent of citizens who are able to vote intend to participate in the presidential elections, data from the Public Opinion Foundation shows a likely turnout rate of 58 percent. According to surveys conducted by Levada in December, only 28 percent of participants said they would vote, while 30 percent said they would “probably vote.” Some experts have predicted that this year could have the lowest turnout in the history of Russian presidential elections. Considering the results of local and regional elections in September 2017, this isn’t so far-fetched. The average voter turnout throughout the country was roughly 29 percent. In Moscow, it was just over 12 percent.
As a result, the government has been working hard to increase voter participation. But there are limits to what Russia can allow. It cannot allow greater participation if that means voting for anyone who isn’t Putin. Hence, the reason why Moscow has cracked down on Putin’s foremost political opponent, Alexei Navalny, and why it has made sure recent protests were smaller than those in 2017, when tens of thousands of disenchanted Russians took to the streets.
Russia is relying on subtler measures, sanctioned by the government, to encourage participation. In August, for example, the Presidential Administration ordered the Central Election Commission to spend 700 million rubles to get people to the ballot box. In the months since, social media and provocative videos have emerged as significant vehicles for encouraging Russians to cast their vote. In recent weeks, perhaps due to the ineffectiveness of these measures, the Russian government has gone back to the basics, heavily advertising elections on the streets, in public transport, in cinemas and on posters across the country. Russia is treating voter turnout as an important indication of the legitimacy of the government.
The primary motivation to campaign for high voter participation is domestic, but low voter turnout could also have international implications. An overwhelming victory for Putin combined with extremely low turnout could be used by foreign countries and international organizations to delegitimize the Russian government and even encourage them to support potential challengers. Indeed, many have already criticized Russia’s upcoming elections as undemocratic for deliberately excluding Navalny. It’s unlikely that they would refuse to recognize Putin as the head of the Russian state, of course, and Russia has rarely been easily cowed by the opinions of others. But given the state of the Russian economy, Russia cannot afford to isolate itself from the countries in the West that could, if placated, ease sanctions against Russia. In other words, Moscow cannot afford to let the international community doubt its legitimacy any more than it can allow its own people to do so.
Indeed, the esteem of its residents is particularly important to Russia, which is more vulnerable and insecure than it would like the world to think. (One of the reasons it involved itself in the Syrian civil war, for example, is to prove that it is still internationally relevant.) Historically, when Russians lose faith in their political system – as they did before the Bolshevik Revolution and right after the fall of the Soviet Union – bad things tend to happen. Putin is broadly popular in Russia, but Russian missteps in Ukraine and economic troubles due to lower than expected oil prices have wounded his image. Putin does not need everyone to vote for him, but he does need everyone to buy into the legitimacy of Russian politics and the strength and unity of the government just by voting – even for a sanctioned opposition candidate. That is worth almost as much as a vote for Putin himself.
By no means does the stability of Russian hang in the balance of the March 18 election. The fall of states is rarely the result of one specific election. Moscow tends to survive by investing the Russian people in the government. The alternative is chaos. In that sense, Putin’s biggest rival is political apathy. The upcoming election is simply a status check of just how apathetic the Russians currently are.