I began the chapter on Russia in Comparative Politics by noting that my wife and I had not paid attention to the Russian parliamentary election in 2017 despite the fact that we had both worked on the country for years. We took an intellectual pass because we knew the results were a foregone conclusion.
We did not ignore the 2018 presidential election even though there was next to no suspense. Everyone knew that Vladimir Putin would win. The only doubts were about the size of his victory and the overall turnout.
As noted in the book, Russia did not come close to meeting accepted standards for democratic elections and has not at any point in the Putin era. That’s been especially true since he returned to the presidency in 2012, extended the presidential term to six years, and saw his credible opposition all but evaporate.
So, when the 2018 presidential election season began, there really was only one credible opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny (1976-). He had long been a thorn in the government’s side and was eventually prohibited from running on the basis of his conviction on embezzlement charges which most international observers are convinced were trumped up. In the end, the other candidates who ran presented at most token opposition. As usual, the Liberal Democrats (who jokingly are referred to as neither) ran Vladimir Zhironovsky. The Communists ran as part of a broader coalition of left of center parties and supported Pavel Grudinin rather than its own secretary general, Gennady Zuganov. Nominal opposition came from Ksenia Sobchak whose father had been mayor Saint Petersburg and Putin’s first political mentor, which left most observers doubting her opposition credentials. The only outspoken and total opposition came from Grigory Yavlinsky of Yaboloko. Three other candidates , but he barely topped one percent of the vote. Three other candidates appeared on the ballot and, together, only won two percent.
The campaign would have surprised anyone who follows elections in the United States, Great Britain, or Germany. Putin made exactly one campaign appearance. He did not appear at any of the televised debates, and most of the other candidates were represented by proxies if they, too, appeared at all.
The results were so predetermined that Putin realized he wanted to make certain that he won more votes than he had in 2012 and that turnout was at least as high as it was six years earlier. As a result, there were widespread reports of ballot box stuffing, people paid to vote, food and beverages and even entertainment on offer at polling places, and other irregularities.
As a result, one has to read the results in the following table with a grain of salt. There is little doubt that the highly popular Putin would have won–even if Navalny had been allowed to run. One wonders if two thirds of the eligible voters would have shown up or if Putin would have honestly won more than three-quarters of the vote.
Russian Election 2018
|CANDIDATE||PARTY||% of Vote|
|Vladimir Putin||Independent/United Russia||76.7|
|Pavel Grudinin||Communist Party of Russian Federation and allies||11.8|
|Vladimir Zhirinovsky||Liberal Democrats||5.7|
|Ksenia Sobchak||Civic Initiative||1.7|
In other words, the results did not provide Putin with a mandate to carry out his program. He didn’t need the support of the electorate. As what political scientists are beginning to call a hybrid regime, Putin combines authoritarian rule with a modicum of democratic trappings.
Nothing happened during the course of the 2017 or 2018 campaigns to change that.
To be sure, there is some speculation about what Putin will do in 2014 when his term ends and he is legally barred from running for reelection. No expects him to withdraw if he wants to remain in power. He could, for instance, force through another change in the constitution much as Xi Jinping has recently done in China. Or, he could repeat what he did in 2008, which was to swap places with his prime minister and govern the country from that position.
Next to no one doubts that if Putin wants to stay that he’ll find a quasi-legal way to do so.
The biggest changes in Russian political life since Comparative Politics was published in 2017 is that global pressure on its government has increased with little apparent impact—so far. In 2017, the United States Congress passed the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act over President Trump’s objections. The probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a number of Russian political and business leaders, most of whom have close ties to the Putin regime. In 2018, Russian agents almost certainly poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, which prompted the British government and its allies to impose sanctions of their own.
So far, however, the sanctions have not had an appreciable impact on Russian domestic or foreign policy.