Win big, lose bigger: Why Russia’s sham election result could become Putin’s mistake

Vladimir Putin’s ‘historic’ election result demonstrates his absolute control over the administrative system, but could also encourage him to make big political mistakes

Men sit near a TV broadcasting news on the results of Russian presidential candidate and incumbent President Vladimir Putin, on the final day of the presidential election in Moscow, Russia, March 17, 2024. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Men sit near a TV broadcasting news on the results of Russian presidential candidate and incumbent President Vladimir Putin, on the final day of the presidential election in Moscow, March 17, 2024
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Maxim Shemetov

In a Russian presidential election completely cleansed of any serious opponents or intrigue, Vladimir Putin received 87 per cent of the vote with a 77 per cent turnout. This is the highest percentage and turnout in the history of modern Russia, as almost all pro-state media emphasised on Monday morning.

On the one hand, this sends a clear message to the population and elites: Putin is at the peak of his control over the administrative system he has spent 25 years building. Russians are consolidated around the president and his decision to start a bloody war in Ukraine.

On the other hand, strange as it may seem, these election results are a blow to Putin’s legitimacy – relying more on voter manipulation than at any other time in recent history. In his first few terms, the Kremlin had tried to demonstrate that the president relied on the “Putin majority” – the mass Russian electorate who voted for stability after the upheavals of the 1990s. Now his legitimacy, at least in the eyes of some Russian elites and residents of large cities, is built on coercion.

Such a ‘historic’ win could ultimately become a loss for the Kremlin. Russian society, especially in major cities, is already irritated by the first wave of mobilisation, the inability of those mobilised to return home to their families, and the killing of Navalny. If Putin, emboldened by the result, implements more unpopular measures – from tax hikes to new conservative shifts – opposition and unrest will likely grow in response. Indeed, the greater the gap between genuine and manufactured support, the more unstable the regime could become.

System overload

This gap turned out to be even larger than the Kremlin itself anticipated. It had aimed for a mere “historic result”: 80-82 per cent of the vote for Putin with a 70-75 per cent turnout. In the absence of any intrigue, however, it is not easy to achieve such figures – voters simply have no reason to show up at polling stations. Realising this, the presidential administration expanded its menu of manipulations as much as possible. Since the widespread protests in 2011-2012 demanding clean elections, the authorities have tried to avoid outright fraud in major cities. Instead, they have sought to combine electoral fraud in rural territories with the mobilisation in cities of those who work for corporations or organisations dependent on the state.

This time, administrative mobilisation outdid itself. The colossal overstretching of the bureaucratic system gifted Putin a result even better than “planned”, bringing his performance closer to that of east Asian or African dictatorships.

The presidential election spanned three days, intentionally including Friday – a working day. This enabled managerial oversight of employees from state enterprises, public-sector organisations, and large businesses reliant on state contracts to ensure they participated in the election directly from their places of work. They were mobilised to vote inlabour collectives”, and formed queues at polling stations. On the first day of voting, turnout nearly hit 36 per cent, with some polling stations in Russia’s far east reporting a 100 per cent turnout.

Alongside this, election monitors in various organisations compelled employees to cast their votes directly from their workstations using Remove Electronic Voting (REV), and then nudged the laggards. Due to increased activity, the REV system experienced several outages on the first day. By the end of the three-day voting period, it had contributed over 4m votes to Putin’s tally (excluding the REV results in Moscow). In total, over 100,000 public-sector organisations were tasked with encouraging their employees to vote for Putin, despite legal mandates requiring their neutrality.

The Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine were also added to the list of regions traditionally known as “electoral sultanates” – areas that report exceptionally high turnout and government-favoured results. For instance, in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic, the figures were above 95 per cent. Meanwhile in Chechnya, Putin received 99 per cent of the vote. Unsurprisingly, these regions exhibited electoral anomalies indicative of overt vote manipulation at numerous polling stations.

Such widespread administrative exertion exemplifies the classic competitive nature of Russian bureaucracy. The initial target of 80 per cent for Putin was interpreted by regional leaders as a baseline, prompting officials in each region to want to outperform their neighbours in demonstrating loyalty and efficacy. In most regions, the number of independent observers was significantly smaller than in the previous elections and local election commissions likely “rounded up” votes for Putin, adding another 22m votes in addition to the votes of those who were subject to administrative mobilisation.

The queue against

What is more significant, however, is what the vote did not show. For the first time, the Russian opposition tried to respond to the administrative mobilisation with its own mobilisation, organising a “noon against Putin” protest on Sunday. At midday, queues formed at several hundred polling stations in major Russian cities and almost all polling stations abroad of people who had come to spoil their ballot papers or vote for any candidate other than Putin.

The queue at noon, supported by the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, among others, was a continuation of the anti-war rallies Russia has seen over the past months. In January, queues formed of those wishing to sign the presidential nomination of Boris Nadezhdin, an anti-war candidate who was ultimately barred from running. In February, the queue at Navalny’s funeral to pay respects became a symbol of democratic Russia. Queues outside polling stations completed this cycle.

Organised queuing is just about the only remaining accessible and safe mode of political action in Russia. The Kremlin harshly represses any rallies or expressions of protest against the war on social media, but a queue is not easy to classify as an uncoordinated rally and in turn detain its participants.

At the same time, for those who stand in the queues, it is a way to confirm that they are not alone in their anti-war views, as Russian propaganda tries to portray them. So far, the sense of solidarity accumulated in queues has not translated into more serious political action, but it is with this solidarity that a large-scale anti-war movement could emerge in Russia when – and if – the window of opportunity for democratisation widens.

On top of this, some Russians took to arson and attempted to deface ballot boxes and voting premises as a form of protest. Despite the fact that this would result in criminal penalties, voters took such radical action at several dozen polling stations. The relative gravity of these actions indicates the accumulating social tension and growing attitude among parts of the population that the election is a farce.

Although this, and images of noon queues, may not directly challenge Putin’s domestic legitimacy, his ‘historic’ victory, achieved through extensive administrative mobilisation, creates a potential weak spot for the regime. The semblance of widespread support for the president might create a false sense of security, encouraging Putin to make more unpopular decisions affecting both the economy, such as increasing taxes and reducing social benefits, and military matters, such as declaring a new wave of mobilisation wave.

In an environment where genuine support is supplanted by absolute administrative dominance, the political capital of the opposition is only strengthened

But in an environment where genuine support is supplanted by absolute administrative dominance, the political capital of the opposition is only strengthened. Alternatively, some Russians who have lost faith in politics altogether may prefer to take more extreme actions against the regime (as the punishment is comparable), exacerbating social unrest. Hurling Molotov cocktails at military enlistment offices, may well become a more common occurrence, risking an escalation of uncontrolled violence within the political system and an even more unstable Russia.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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