Many Western pundits these days like to ask the question: do Russia’s elections actually matter? After all, the incumbent Vladimir Putin is virtually guaranteed to win. The short answer to this question is yes. However short answers are boring, and they never properly explain the nuanced multi-layered reality that we are confronted with. Russian elections get an awful lot of bad press in the West, accusations that they are rife with electoral fraud and rigged in favour of Putin are regularly thrown around by state and corporate media. Many pundits have suggested they might as well do away with elections because they believe the Russian Federation to be a dictatorship in all but name. They’re either uninformed or pushing an agenda – and it’s about time someone explained why.
Russian elections are important because they are an indicator of the direction in which one of the world’s three nuclear superpowers is heading. They also demonstrate that Russia is a civilised nation capable of its own self-determination, a fact rarely discussed in western media. In some ways they’re just as important as the US elections when you take into consideration that US presidents come and go but rarely does core American policy both international and domestic actually change. Sadly given that the extent of Western establishment expertise on Russia is roughly the depth of a puddle, few people realise this.
To understand modern Russian elections and the type of democracy that they represent, one must have a basic understanding of Russian history from the past few decades. Aside from a very brief flirtation with democracy between the abdication of the Tsar in February of 1917 and the Bolshevik overthrow of Alexander Kerensky’s republic in November later that year, the Russian relationship with democracy only properly started in 1991.
To put it mildly, that relationship began on a poor footing and only became worse, much worse. The government of Boris Yeltsin between 1991 and 1999 was by all accounts incredibly corrupt and controlled almost entirely by the new oligarchy and their Western backers. The economic and social situation in this era was so horrific that abortions outnumbered pregnancies by around 300%, while the US secretary of state began referring to Russia as ‘Bangladesh with missiles’. The election of 1996 was even blatantly stolen through fraud and Western financial backing, so much so that Time Magazine boasted about the American role in interfering in it.
By the time Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin came to power in the final hours of the 2nd millennium, most Russians were sick and tired of Western-style liberal democracy which in practice gave them no actual democratic power over institutions and massively enriched a tiny elite at their expense.
Putin’s newfound image as a something of a strongman, and one with a reputation of efficiency and extreme disdain for corruption gave the electorate an actually popular candidate for the first time in nearly a decade. His immediate campaign to bring order to the breakaway region of Chechnya, overrun by Islamic terrorists, certainly helped in this regard. Following that success there were other achievements, such as bringing the oligarch class to heel, massive increases in quality of life, and restoration of Russian national pride – all of which established him as the defining figure in Russian politics that we see today.
As we have seen from every election the Russians have hosted in the 21st century, including the most recent one, Putin has won by a vast margin and with rather considerable turnout as well. There have been no credible challengers in any of them, a fact that is actually lamented by many Russians. Given his immense popularity and the lack of any competent rivals, it is no wonder that he wins in such fashion. There isn’t even any need for voter fraud or rigging, as most Russians are perfectly happy with a competent long-serving president.
While there isn’t any need for voter fraud it is important to point out that it does still happen in many rural and far off places, especially in regions such as Chechnya where vote buying and ballot stuffing is endemic on a local level. Luckily these regions have low population and a respect for democratic norms is slowly being cultivated. Even Western observers noted a definite decrease in electoral fraud during this election. It has only ever accounted for small percentages and certainly never swung an election.
So with that brief introduction to Russia’s democratic history and norms we move on to why their elections should actually matter to us. It’s mostly as a tool to gauge the political atmosphere within Russia and how the people lean ideologically – which is in itself a measure of the political capital that Putin’s government possesses.
The communist party has consistently been the biggest challenger. However, they have not received more than 20% of the vote since 2004, and their 11.8% result this year demonstrates their inability to mobilise people and put forward a solid candidate. Communist supporters tend to be the older generations who grew up steeped in Soviet culture.
Close behind the communists are the ironically named Liberal Democratic Party, led by ultranationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A man who has participated in nearly every election since 1991 – usually receiving 5-10% of the vote. This year they received a disappointing 5.7%. They usually perform best among the youth, many of whom support revanchist Russian ethno-nationalism.
Any other candidates are usually either free-marketeer businessmen such as Prokhorov or Titov (consistently under 10%), or pro-Western liberals such as Grigory Yavlinksy, Alexei ‘the darling of the Western media’ Navalny and now this year the vacuous television host Ksenia Sobckak – all of whom never poll above 3%.
When opposition candidates rarely surpass 10% let alone 20%, it is easy to believe that Russia is not a real democracy. In reality the onus of these terrible results is not on fraud or rigging, but on the incompetence and unpopularity of the opposition. The communist candidate Grudinin was found to have millions in offshore banking, Zhirinovsky has called for the nuking of Turkey, and the liberals blatantly receive financial and media support from exiled oligarchs and Western governments. A televised debate involving all candidates but Putin resulted in the throwing of water and lengthy exchanges of profanity. Hardly an encouraging line-up of alternative political leaders.
Russians know Putin will win as long as he continues to do a good job, and Putin knows it too. So what do the elections mean for Russian politics? They are in essence a referendum on the policies of Putin’s last term. If the communists perform better, the Russian government will lean more towards left-wing policy and if the ultranationalist LDPR perform well then they know to lean more nationalist.
The result of the 2018 election tells a very interesting story. With 68% turnout, 76.7% cast a vote for Vladimir Putin, in line with his ~80% approval rating. 11.8% for the communists, 5.7% for the ultranationalists, 2.7% for the liberals and 3% for various others or spoilt votes. These numbers are a record high for Putin and record lows for everybody else. The other political parties in Russia are reaching terminal irrelevancy. In reality his biggest enemy was voter apathy and he appears to have soundly defeated it.
This presents both challenges and benefits for Putin during his final term. On one hand, some aspects of Russian democracy have become somewhat incompetent given that nobody else is able to field a true opposition challenger. Contrary to what the western establishment suggests, this is not something that Putin actually wants. He will be out of government in 2024, and needs a stable democratic system of competent parties and individuals to succeed him. This means much work will have to be done to improve the quality and stability of Russian democracy, a difficult task considering that many Russians don’t even see the point in democracy, or at least the Western understanding of it.
On the other hand, the high turnout and overwhelming support he received gives him an unprecedented mandate to truly reform the country, especially economically and societally. It shows that Russians are more united than ever, and that they approve of his previous projects in regards the economy, demographics, the revival of Russian culture and perhaps most importantly for us in the West – his foreign policy.
Previous Russian efforts in improving their economy and military capabilities, as well as an increased involvement in Russia’s sphere of influence combatting US attempts at regime change (such as in Syria and Ukraine) have proved immensely popular at home and this is reflected in the result. With a country more unified behind him than ever, Putin can press ahead with multi-billion euro reforms in healthcare, manufacturing, the military and more. Perhaps the lingering issue of a defanged yet still troublesome oligarch class will finally be dealt with – and harshly too, as many in Russia are predicting. His intervention in Syria to fight Islamic terrorism and re-engagement with the Middle East is set to deepen and continue, as well as the growth of economic and political ties with Iran and China – two key partners in what can now only be described as the new cold war.
While everyone expected Putin to win, and win he did – the results tell us a story about the direction in which one of the world’s foremost military and economic powers is going. For this reason alone their elections are worth following and reading into deeper than the bombastic nonsense that is routinely spouted by Western mainstream media. Russian democracy is very different to ours, yet for the most part it delivers the results that the Russian people want. It has now set the country on a course of immense change and hopefully, immense improvements.