Election Russian presidential elections 2012

Next Sunday, on March 4, presidential elections are held in Russia. The likely winner of the elections, Vladimir Putin, has been known already for five months but during these five months Russian political climate has changed significantly.

Published on balticworlds.com on March 1, 2012

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Next Sunday, on March 4, presidential elections are held in Russia. The likely winner of the elections, Vladimir Putin, has been known already for five months but during these five months Russian political climate has changed significantly.

When Vladimir Putin was nominated a presidential candidate for the United Russia party on 24 September 2011, the name of the next president of Russia became already known, more than five months before the elections. The public protests after the parliamentary elections in December and afterwards, did not change this prognosis a lot, although some doubts started to appear. Putin was first elected in 2000 with support by the former president Boris Yeltsin and after having served two terms he moved to prime minister post and his candidate, Dmitry Medvedev, was elected for one term. Putin’s move out from the presidential post for one term was required by Russian constitution which allows only two consequent terms for one person in presidential post. Although public support would have allowed Putin to change the constitution he decided not to do so, but remained one term out from the presidential post.

The popular protests after parliamentary elections were partly caused by public resentment for Putin’s announcement that everything was agreed between him and Medvedev already in 2008. This was not the only reason because popularity of both Putin and Medvedev had been declining already for some time and increasing part of the Russian population would like to see changes in political system. An additional reason for protests in big cities was a significant election fraud in Moscow.

There had been discussion on election fraud in Russian blogs already after elections in 2007 and 2008. For example, according to one blogger Medvedev got 63% of votes in 2008, while the official result was 71.2%. But then, major elections fraud could not be detected in Moscow. In 2011 parliamentary elections the estimation of the blogger was 34.4%, while official result was 49.2%. What was more important was the fraud in Moscow. No one would have played much attention to manipulation of results in south of Russia or countryside, where people tend to support party of power even without fraud. In Moscow the official result was perhaps doubled for United Russia as the comparison between exit poll results and the official results indicate. On the other hand, the reliability of exit polls is reduced by the large share (35%) of refusals to reply. The voting of those not responding may be completely different than that of those who responded in exit polls.

Although Putin’s election is certain, at least with same likelihood as Finnish presidential election result this year, Russia is, however, not an authoritarian state without alternatives: there are also four other candidates. Also five other candidates had announced their intention to take part in elections, but they were not approved by the Central Electoral Commission. The disapproval of other candidates, mainly Grigory Yavlinsky, has been called political, but it is also true that a small party without a large network of members and supporters do have real difficulties in collecting 2 million signatures for their candidate in a short time. The limit is disproportionally high (proportionally approximately four times higher than, for example, Finnish requirement of 20,000 signatures for the nomination of a presidential candidate) and it effectively limits the possibilities of minor parties to participate in elections. The need for signatures has been lifted from the parties represented in Russian parliament. Yavlinsky was not approved because share of invalid signatures had been 25%, which is higher than the allowed 5%. Oppositional candidate Mikhail Kasyanov had similar fate in presidential elections in 2008.

The only candidate who succeeded in collected signatures was millionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, likely with the help of his financial capital. Some other candidates like Dmitry Mezentsev, the governor of Irkutsk region, was also disqualified because irregularities in collected signatures. Prokhorov has been suspected of being Kremlin’s candidate to secure elections. Without Prokhorov it would be possible that Zyuganov, Mironov and Zhirinovsky would withdraw their candidacies and with only one candidate elections should be cancelled. In presidential elections 2008 a similar role was played by Andrey Bogdanov, leader of the insignificant Democratic Party of Russia. Prokhorov had a short career as the leader of a minor party Right Cause but he was soon ousted from the party from which he blames Kremlin.   

After the December protests Russian blogs and social media have been filled with critical caricatures on Putin. Putin has been presented behind the bars, his image campaign has been discredited and all these have become very popular in Russian internet, for example in Facebook. These caricatures represent a significant disillusionment with Putin although Putin has also much support as guarantee for stability.

When election campaign has been going on Putin’s popularity has been increasing, mainly because the other candidates are hardly seen as real alternatives. Gennadi Zyuganov from Communists, Sergei Mironov (Just Russia) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky are all leadership of parliamentary opposition parties and all of them have been presidential candidates already in earlier elections. Mikhail Prokhorov is the only first time candidate but as a billionaire he may be seen as an alternative only for rather small part of Russians.

According to opinion polls all the other candidates have together less support than Vladimir Putin. Public Opinion Foundation (Fond obshchestvennoe mnenie, FOM) prognoses that Putin would get 59.5% of votes, Zyuganov 16.3%, Prokhorov 8.6%, Zhirinovsky 8.5% and Mironov 5.6%. Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (WCIOM) prognoses that Putin will get 59.9%, Zyuganov 15.1%, Prokhorov 8.7%, Zhirinovsky 7.7% and Mironov 7.1%. Third polling centre Levada Centre despite its reputation of being independent gives highest prognosis for Putin, 66%, while Zyuganov would get 15%, Zhirinovsky 8%, Prokhorov 6% and Mironov 5%. In Moscow and St. Petersburg Putin’s support is below 50% according to WCIOM.

The opinion polls are very close to each other which tells either about the high quality of polling mechanism or similar bias in all of them. In earlier elections prognoses have been very close to official results, which diminish strength for allegations for major manipulation of election result. On the other hand, opinion polls may result a biased prognosis, for example, because people may report more easily their support for the ruling party or candidate than support for opposition.

Presidential candidates have presented their programs in their campaign sites but while the winner of the election is anticipated by almost all, the electoral programs are mainly empty slogans and do not much differ from each other. All the candidates oppose corruption, emphasize active role of citizens and the unity of Russia, for example. They would also like to divide economic wealth to citizens. All the candidates emphasizes patriotism is various forms. Zhirinovsky is the most populist one, but also other candidates emphasize Russia’s importance in the world and strong Russia. With available funds from oil and gas revenues Putin’s government has been able to provide material enticements to population. Government has, for example, postponed utility tariff price rises, hiked pensions and frozen gasoline prices.

Putin has also presented his ideas is a collection of newspaper articles published in leading national newspapers with concrete proposals what should be done. Putin, for example, suggests that poverty should be abolished in Russia and high-tech industry be developed as well as army to be modernized. Opponents have criticized the program that Putin “no longer understands the problems facing the country and therefore has no idea what needs to be done” as Mikhail Kasyanov stated in the Moscow Times on 29 February. Less critical comments focus on how much and what from the program will actually be realized.

In the media Putin has been dominating the scene. According to a Research Institute for Political Culture of Russia (cikrf.ru) which has close connection to the Communist Party Vladimir Putin clearly dominates television coverage of candidates with a total of 70% of all coverage on candidates since 19 December. Just before elections his share has declined to 63%, while other candidates have gained more presence in television. Prokhorov is the second most often mentioned candidate with 13% share and Zyuganov the third with 10%. In newspapers the situation is similar. According to Integrum database Putin is mentioned more than all other presidential candidates together in Russian national newspapers and his dominance has been increasing since the early January. In national newspapers Putin is, however, not as dominating as in television. In February Putin got approximately 60% of all mentions of presidential candidates, while share of all the other candidates is quite equal, Prokhorov although leading with 12% share. In regional newspapers Putin is slightly more dominant than in national newspapers. Putin got in February 66% of all mentions of candidates, while Prokhorov was second with 10%. In comparison with earlier elections since the year 2000 the current elections have, however, been more equal in media coverage of different candidates.

As many as 80% believe that Putin will win elections and 62% believe that this will happen also in the first round. The victory of any other candidate is anticipated by only 8% of Russians. Anyhow, according to polls half of Russian believe that presidential elections will be completely or mainly honest while one third (35%) believe that there will either minor or major falsifications.

Putin will likely become the next president of Russia and he will very likely get majority of votes already in the first round. How big his majority will be remains to be seen and it may have several consequences. If Putin’s victory is a small and if there is suspicion of even small scale election fraud, taking place in countryside or in Southern Russia, the protests may increase. If the majority is big enough and if there are no suspicion on major falsification, the protests may calm down.

In 2000 Putin got 53% and in 2004 as much as 71.3% of votes. Now Putin’s victory will likely be lower than in 2004, but higher than in 2000. In case Putin does not win on 4 March the runoff will take place after three weeks according to Russian legislation. The likely other candidate in the second round will be Gennady Zyuganov, but in this unlikely case Putin will win the second round easily.

In the light of the December manifestations for fair elections it is likely that electoral fraud will be less visible than in parliamentary elections of 2011. This is the case at least in big cities, while in Southern Russia political climate is completely different. The exit poll results which main opinion poll agencies will collect will certainly be followed closely as well as any statistical irregularities in published election results. The results will likely be available very soon after the election and the first comments and analysis by Russian bloggers can be expected already during the election night as was the case with parliamentary elections. The challenge of the election fraud is that the decisions to falsify vote count are made on local level: the good result for authorities would benefit the region or locality with economic bonuses for local infrastructure, for example. Therefore, election fraud is possible to be detected by statistical methods, and also difficult to avoid, without changing the power vertical and political culture in which public support for authorities is bought by material benefits and vertical relationships.

Opposition leaders have called on rally on a central square on March 5, the day after the presidential vote, even if Moscow authorities do not give the event their approval. If there will be evidence on major fraud of election result the demonstrations may get more speed and decrease the legitimacy of the current regime even more. That would not be a good start for Putin’s new term in presidency. What the new term will bring depends not only on the will of the leadership but also changes in oil and gas prices all of which are not controllable by Russian authorities.

  • by Jukka Pietiläinen

    PhD, senior research at Aleksanteri Institute at the University of Helsinki. He is currently finishing a book on Russian magazines and starting article on fraud in Russian elections.

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