Who knew voting in a predetermined election could be this much fun? Russia’s election this past Sunday abounded with iPhone raffles, costumes and games. In eastern Moscow, a clown helped drum up excitement, while concerts and fireworks gave grand finales to the closing of the polls.
These Soviet-style strategies worked. Vladimir Putin cruised to victory with a commanding 76 percent of the vote for his fourth term as president of Russia. He is not slated to leave office until 2024.
Much has been made of Russia’s recent economic struggles. How did a government that has watched over falling real incomes and a stagnating economy secure such a dominating victory? And what do Sunday’s results tell us about what to expect from another six years of Putin?
How did Russia get such high turnout?
By numerous metrics, the regime’s ability to mobilize votes was impressive. More than 67 percent of the population, or 55 million Russians, turned out for an election whose outcome was determined months in advance. The vast majority of these voters cast their ballot for Putin.
Especially interesting are the strides made from the last national election. The 2016 Duma contest suffered from severe voter apathy and record low turnout of 47 percent. In 2018, unlike in 2016, every region had at least 50 percent turnout. Perhaps what most surprised observers was turnout in the ethnic republics. In the past, they were reported as having somewhat unbelievable levels of up to 100 percent turnout, supporting Putin’s party. This year authorities reported more consistent voting across all regions, with fewer anomalies in either direction.
In other words, there was still some degree of fraud in this year’s election, but authorities largely refrained from extreme manipulation. And true voter interest rose, giving a more even result.
Achieving these numbers wasn’t easy. The 2018 election was officially the most expensive in Russian history. According the Central Election Commission, the government spent more than 18 billion rubles (just more than $300 million) organizing the carnival-like atmosphere — nearly twice the 10 billion rubles spent on the 2012 election. And with dark money endemic in Russian electioneering, many suspect that this year the real total expense was far higher.
It wasn’t all fun and games at the polling booths. Authorities applied intense pressure to show up and vote on all sorts of individuals dependent on the government for their livelihood: doctors, teachers, soldiers, bureaucrats and employees of state-owned enterprises. Our research has shown that intimidating voters is very effective, and less costly, at getting out the vote, especially in middle-income countries such as Russia, where the alternate strategy of buying votes can be quite expensive.
But Putin’s victory also rested on genuine support from the general public, not just on the carrots and sticks used to mobilize otherwise reluctant voters. Millions of Russians turned out voluntarily and enthusiastically to support their incumbent president. Outright fraud and falsification, according to some analysts, were at their lowest levels since 2004. A prominent citizen observer site recorded half the violations it reported after the 2016 national elections.
Why did the Kremlin care about winning so definitively?
Winning this ostensibly “fair” contest helps the Putin regime achieve two main goals. First, the government wanted to show Putin’s popularity and electoral legitimacy. Russian voters care about electoral integrity. Many believe that, overall, their leaders are fairly elected, and voters are willing to withdraw their support for the government if they witness fraud. High turnout without excessive manipulation helps Putin keep his base intact.
Next, resisting the temptation to falsify elections saps the opposition of rage and momentum. In 2011, social media videos of ballot stuffing helped drive tens of thousands of Russians to street protests, spooking the regime. This time around, there are far fewer blatant violations to fuel the fire. Russia’s main oppositionist, Alexei Navalny, promoted an electoral boycott — but he failed to dampen turnout or embarrass the regime. Putin’s victory once again leaves the opposition humbled, leading to more squabbling among its leaders.
What does this election mean for a post-Putin Russia?
Where does that leave the regime going forward? First, if Putin doesn’t intend to stay in office indefinitely, he needs to ready a successor who can not only maintain order and stability but also ensure his security and comfort once he leaves office. By dominating in Sunday’s polls, Putin has more power to oversee this next coronation. Given Putin’s overwhelming popularity, contenders understand that they cannot campaign on change; if they want to ascend higher, they must profess loyalty to Putin and the continuation of the regime.
The second question for the next six years is not whether Putin will become a lame duck, but what he will do to burnish his legacy. Politicians care deeply about how they’ll be seen in the future. Putin is no exception. True, he may show telltale signs of greed and corruption, with rumors swirling about how much wealth he has accumulated while in office.
But Putin seems to be in part driven by a genuine desire to improve Russia’s domestic economy and its international standing. We can expect him to use his presumably final term to establish himself more firmly in the Russian historical narrative as a “father of the nation” figure.
What will this mean for policy? Substantial reforms would upset the country’s already fragile economic situation. Instead, we should expect more populist measures designed to engender goodwill, and incremental attempts to improve governance and weed out corruption. Putin’s desire to exit the political stage hailed with tributes and adulation should lead to small-scale changes over the next years designed to persuade average Russians that their lot has significantly improved since he first took office in 2000.
Noah Buckley (@thenoahbuckley) is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi and a research fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
David Szakonyi (@dszakonyi) is assistant professor of political science at George Washington University and an academy scholar at Harvard University.