By Jonny Cattermole
In a result which surprised no-one, Putin came away victorious in the country’s latest presidential election. He won with over 76% of the vote, a significant increase on the 64% he received in 2012.
With Putin’s victory a foregone conclusion, the primary concern of Kremlin strategists was to ensure a high turnout. Despite the president having widespread support, many see Putin’s victory as inevitable and simply don’t vote. Likewise, others hope for change but see no point voting in an election where political opposition is actively suppressed and a country which ranked 148th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index.
In efforts to increase turnout, some polling stations in Moscow had music and entertainment. Whilst in other regions, voters were given free or discounted food if they came to vote. In the Khabarovsk region, officials delivered supplies of eggs, tinned peas, and frozen pike to polling stations to be sold at heavily discounted rates. Other incentives to vote included selfie competitions, fancy dress competitions and raffles to win iPhones and cars.
In a viral video, Russian voters were warned of the consequences of not voting. A man in his 50s too lazy to vote wakes up to a knock on his door from soldiers sent by the new president to round-up everyone under 60 for military service. The frightened man rushes to the kitchen, where his wife introduces him to his future gay partner, in line with the new president’s directive. The man then wakes up beside a man in bed. The video ends with the man realising it was all a nightmare, and he rushes to vote. The source of the video is unconfirmed, but is consistent with Kremlin propaganda.
In the end, turnout mildly increased from the 2012 election, but from the start, the election was marred in allegations of interference.
Anti-corruption activist and political opposition leader Alexei Navalny was excluded from the election in a court ruling widely viewed as politically motivated. Navalny is Russia’s most popular opposition leader, and his exclusion from the presidential race excluded any real competition from the election. He called for his supporters to boycott the election and collect evidence of anyone rigging the ballots.
Liberal politician Boris Nemptsov was assassinated in 2015, just hundreds of metres away from the Kremlin. He was a fierce critic of Putin and the Russian annexation of Crimea, and just weeks before his murder had been expressing fears that Putin would have him killed.
Of the official candidates, only Ksenia Sobchak openly criticised Putin, and she was criticised by Navalny and others for allegedly coordinating her campaign with the Kremlin to give the illusion of competition in the election.
Pavel Grudinin, the millionaire communist, had an initial upsurge in popularity but this was quickly quashed as state- run media ran a ferocious a campaign against him. He finished with 12% of the vote, coming second.
As well as the lack of credible competition, independent watchdog Golos reported hundreds of irregularities concerning the vote.
Many of these violations were caught on camera. On webcam livestreams of the polling stations, officials could be seen stuffing ballot papers into boxes. In other polling stations, cameras were deliberately blocked with balloons and other obstacles. Some people were also bussed in to polling stations, amid suspicions of forced voting.
Golos reported voting papers being found in ballot boxes before the opening of voting, and they also reported instances of observers being barred from entering polling stations. As expected, there were more reports of malice in Russia’s more isolated, lawless regions. In Dagestan, electoral observers were beaten up by a large group of men. While the observers were away, officials reportedly used the opportunity to stuff the ballot boxes with additional papers. In a video from the Siberian region of Yakutia, voters patiently queued behind a man stuffing the ballot box. In a polling station in Chechnya, where observers managed to remain all day, turnout was just 35%. Elsewhere in Chechnya where there were no observers, turnout was closer to 100%. Nevalny accused the authorities of inflating turnout statistics, since his 33,000 observers reported a turnout of 55% -some 12% lower than the official figure.
It is hard to quantify the culminative effect of these infractions, but the scale and brazenness of ballot stuffing does appear to be less than in 2012. The ballot stuffing in the 2012 parliamentary elections prompted mass protests, and the government will have no doubt aimed to avoid a repeat.
Predictably, the Kremlin denies the electoral rigging allegations. Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Electoral Commission, said there were no serious violations.
However, independent monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe criticised the election for lacking ‘real choice’, saying many Russians had been pressured to vote and state-run media didn’t fairly cover the election.
Despite concerns about the legitimacy of the vote, Putin has nevertheless consolidated his power in the Kremlin and looks set to continue to disrupting world politics for years to come. By the end of this six-year term, Putin will become the second longest serving leader in Russian history, second only to Joseph Stalin.
Image Lenna Utro-Shterenberg via Flickr