Autocrats have a talent for producing impressive election results. In the last elections they ever ran in, Indonesian dictator Suharto achieved 75 percent of the vote; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had 89 percent; Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu mastered an impressive 98 percent. My friend Boris Vishnevsky, a leading opposition legislator in St. Petersburg, likes to point out that Ceausescu still had a 99 percent approval rating in December 1989, just one week before his trial. As all these victors found out in the end, the results of manipulated “elections” in authoritarian systems are a poor indicator of the actual state of public opinion.
Sunday’s presidential “election” in Russia was marked by the customary vote-getting methods. Monitoring conducted by organizations such as Open Russia, Golos and the Anti-Corruption Foundation documented a plethora of violations, including ballot-stuffing, bloated voter rolls, “voting” by dead people, coercion by employers, expulsion of election observers and multiple vote-casting (“carousel voting”). That election rubber-stamped Vladimir Putin’s fourth (de facto fifth) term as president with nearly 77 percent of the (official) vote.
Ultimately, though, voting-day violations were largely irrelevant. This election was rigged long before the first vote was cast. The defining feature of Russia’s 2018 presidential vote was that it was an election without choice. Two major opposition figures who had planned to run against Putin were absent from the ballot on Sunday. Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister and leader of the People’s Freedom Party, was shot and killed in February 2015 on a bridge in front of the Kremlin. Alexei Navalny, a prominent anti-corruption campaigner, was barred from running, thanks to a trumped-up Russian court sentence that was assessed by the European Court of Human Rights as “arbitrary.” It isn’t difficult to win when your opponents are not on the ballot.
“Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice,” Michael Georg Link, head of the election observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said on Monday as he presented the group’s conclusions in Moscow. “Where the legal framework restricts many fundamental freedoms and the outcome is not in doubt, elections almost lose their purpose – empowering people to choose their leaders.” The statement of preliminary findings by the mission, whose aim was to assess Russia’s compliance with its international obligations on election standards, concluded that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, as well as on candidate registration, have… resulted in a lack of genuine competition.”
Considering the circumstances, the list of foreign leaders who were the first to call Putin with congratulations was appropriate: Bashar al-Assad, Nicolás Maduro, Xi Jinping, Raúl Castro, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Alexander Lukashenko. They know a thing or two about organizing elections.
“We have ahead of us six to 10 years of this regime. Neither Putin’s health nor the country’s economic strength will be able to last for more,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of Open Russia and a prominent Kremlin opponent, said in a statement. “So we all have a lot of work to do if we don’t want … the inevitable collapse of an authoritarian regime to bury the whole country with it.” To this end, he said that his movement will continue to support civil society initiatives, develop political education programs and back pro-democracy candidates in elections.
The official percentages in a vote defined by “a lack of genuine competition” should not disguise the fact that Russian citizens have voted for genuine opposition candidates when they’ve had the chance. They elected Nemtsov to the regional parliament in Yaroslavl. They voted for Navalny when he ran for mayor of Moscow, receiving nearly 30 percent. They elected Yevgeny Roizman in Yekaterinburg, Lev Shlosberg in Pskov, and nearly 300 opposition municipal lawmakers in Moscow.
Given this record, it comes as no surprise that the Kremlin is afraid to allow real competition at the ballot box. Yet there is a certain irony in the fact that a regime that appears to be so fearful of street protests is leaving its citizens no other way of expressing their opposition to their government.