Russian voters will elect a new president this weekend, but the outcome is hardly in doubt. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is both genuinely popular and backed by the incumbent, President Vladimir Putin, which guarantees his accession.
Yet the Kremlin still feels the need to ‘manage’ the polls -- by barring serious rivals and launching politically driven investigations. Russia’s show of electoral politics has more to do with ensuring a smooth transition and internal power politics than democratic principles.
Medvedev’s popularity ratings have soared in the past several months. Putin’s decision to back Medvedev -- who during the campaign period was allowed to retain his job as first deputy prime minister, which gave him additional public exposure -- sidelined his only significant perceived rival, Sergei Ivanov. When asked why he chose to back Medvedev, Putin said that he simply “trusts him”.
Choosing the ‘right candidate’
There are only three other candidates in the hunt for the presidency: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the little known head of the Democratic Party of Russia, Andrei Bogdanov. None of them have even the remotest chance of victory.
More formidable opponents were kept out of the running:
- Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was barred from entering the race as an independent candidate last month, ostensibly because he failed to secure the required signatures of 2 million voters. After the authorities declared 13.38% of the signatures invalid due to “technical errors” and violations in “collectors' data”, he fell some 16,600 signatures short. The Prosecutor-General's Office subsequently opened a criminal investigation into the authenticity of the signatures.
- Citing pressure from the state -- and having spent five days in jail for trying to march in Moscow ahead of the December parliamentary elections -- former chess champion Garry Kasparov decided to end his bid for the presidency late last year.
However, it is highly improbable that the opposition candidates who were denied registration could win a fairly contested poll. Russian pollsters, state-owned and independent alike, estimate Medvedev’s popularity at between 73% and 82%. To be sure, few see Medvedev as an independent candidate; most Russians say they back him because he is Putin’s nominee. Therefore, Medvedev’s approval rating is the sum total of his own and Putin’s popularity -- which remains formidable.
And yet, the authorities at all levels -- federal and regional -- are scheming to manipulate the outcome of the election. In many cases, the initiative comes from regional governors, who are keen to ensure a high turnout. Attention has thus turned to state hospitals, universities and businesses to ensure that voters cast their ballots -- and that they do so in line with the Kremlin’s preferences. Many have been told to get absentee ballots and vote at their workplaces, while setting up polling stations in hospitals will help to ensure that patients vote too. In Nizhny Novgorod, pupils were told to attend the ‘children’s referendums’ at polling stations, apparently to induce their parents to show up and vote for the ‘right candidate’.
Ensuring the ‘right outcome’
The turnout and the margin of Medvedev’s victory are the two key election dilemmas for the Kremlin. The fact that the outcome is inevitable may encourage political apathy among voters. However, Putin strives to portray Medvedev as a legitimate heir, with a strong public mandate. A low turnout would send the wrong message, potentially providing grounds for the opposition -- but more importantly and dangerously, for rival factions in the Kremlin -- to dispute Medvedev’s legitimacy and popular support. That could destabilise the system, with repercussions for political order and the private interests of some sections of the ruling elite.
At the same time, if Medvedev wins by a larger margin than Putin did in 2004, when he received 71.3% of the vote, the intended power balance between Medvedev and Putin could be disturbed. In that case, Medvedev might try to consolidate power as president at the expense of his future prime minister, Putin. Thus, the manipulation of the vote will be a delicate balancing act, with the Kremlin likely to encourage at least a 65% turnout. However, the percentage of votes that the Kremlin wants Medvedev to receive is far less clear. It is likely to be no less than 60% but no more than 70%. Such a result would enable the Medvedev-Putin tandem to signal Russian citizens and the world that stability and continuity will be the cornerstone of Russia’s policy under the new president -- and his powerful prime minister.