Vladimir Putin has been re-elected for a fourth term as president of the Russian Federation (he also served one term as prime minister from 2008-2012). His victory, with 76% of the vote, is the result of the Kremlin’s near-monopoly on media, Putin’s unparalleled visibility, the detention of potentially popular candidates like Alexei Navalny, and the fact that Putin’s United Russia party enjoys a majority in the State Duma, the Russian Federation’s lower house.
In the lead up to the election, Putin’s biggest worry was low voter turn-out, which would erode his legitimacy. The fierce get-out-the-vote campaign by the Kremlin, however, led to a voter turn-out of 67.5% (out of 108,968,869 registered voters registered on January 1, 2018). The election observation mission of the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observed in its interim report that “in some regions, governors […] have organized competitions among precinct election commissions and have offered monetary rewards for precinct election commissions with the best performance and the highest voter turnout.”
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin explained in a blog why he intended to vote for Putin —as he explained, despite falling oil prices and sanctions, Russia is back and moving forward thanks to Putin. While the Central Election Committee called the move “unethical,” it considered Sobyanin’s endorsement “a recognition of his love for the president” rather than illegal political campaigning.
At its post-election press conference on Monday, March 19, the OSCE representative, Ambassador Jan Petersen, said “Persistent pressure on civil society, the absence of critical reporting in most media, and concerted efforts to increase turnout characterized the political environment of this election.”
And yet, these elections were different. For the first time since Boris Yeltsin’s tenure in the 1990s, serious opposition candidates competed against the incumbent. Of the seven presidential candidates, only nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) was a self-acknowledged Putin ally. The other candidates included Ksenia Sobchak, a former reality TV host and daughter of the former mayor of Saint Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak. Her views are ultra-liberal and she opposes Russian’s annexation of Crimea. On the eve of the elections, Sobchak founded a new political party, the Party of Changes. “She is young, she is a good speaker, she is smart. On the one hand she’s liberal and on the other hand, she’s comfortable with the Kremlin,” political analyst Abbas Gallyamov told Al Jazeera, who sees a bright political future for Sobchak. Newcomer Boris Titov (Russia’s Business Ombudsman) and Grigori Yavlinsky, of the social democratic party Yabloko, all ran serious campaigns challenging the Kremlin and its policies. In the next presidential election, all these candidates have a serious shot at replacing Putin and his authoritarian Politburo-style administration.
And then there is the charismatic Alexei Navalny, who was not allowed to run, but managed to dramatically alter Russia’s political scene. Until last year, the anti-Putin movement was largely confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Under Navalny, it has spread all over Russia, “flourishing in regions, which metropolitan democrats have long deemed hopeless,” according to journalist Leonid Ragozin in Al Jazeera. His supporters include many teenagers and twenty-somethings — who have never seen a Russia without Putin — and who dread the prospect of the status quo being maintained; this is a generation that is largely beyond the reach for the Kremlin’s TV propaganda, preferring social networks and vlogs instead.
When the next presidential election comes around in 2024, Russia may not be fighting a war in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine or Syria to distract Russians, convince them to close ranks, and feel obliged to vote for an authoritarian candidate.