The outcome of Sunday’s presidential election in Russia was never in doubt. Putin would win and do so in overwhelming fashion. His opponents were a motley band of tired, but loyal sparring partners and newcomers to national politics.
They had no chance against a man with job approval ratings near 80% and with the full backing of the state’s formal and informal institutions. The main liberal candidate – Ksenia Sobchak – had said that a good result for her would have been 5%; she got 1.6%.
Despite capturing the attention of almost no one, the election did produce winners and losers beyond the people preordained to fill those roles. Here are three of them.
This one is sort of a no-brainer, but the repercussions for the opposition go beyond the immediate outcome of the election.
Opposition to Putin is as divided as ever. The alliance of leftists, liberals and nationalists that led protests in 2011-12 is long gone. The deepening spat between Sobchak and Aleksey Navalny is only the most obvious manifestation of problems within the opposition. Sobchak’s candidacy was dogged by rumors of Kremlin sponsorship and attracted fierce opposition from Navalny, who was banned from running and instead advocated for a boycott of the elections. Sobchak argued participating in elections was important for building democratic experience among potential supporters leading into Putin’s twilight years in office.
Their contrasting strategies, predictably, left both worse off. Sobchak, despite her flaws as a candidate, would have almost certainly garnered more votes had many liberals not boycotted the election. Navalny’s plan to cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy by depressing turnout also failed. Electoral boycotts provide a noisy signal of discontent unless they are so widespread that the motivation for voter non-participation is obvious. In this case, the signal was drowned out by the healthy turnout numbers – more than 67% – generated through the use of administrative resources like mass advertising, voter coercion and fraud. Most regions saw small increases in turnout from 2012. Regions that registered declines appear to have done so because the level of fraud declined, not because of the boycott.
The divide within the liberal opposition echoes in the other main camps of the 2011-12 opposition coalition. Left Front, led by Sergey Udaltsov, campaigned for Communist Party candidate/sacrificial lamb Pavel Grudinin, while other left-wing groups advocated for a boycott. For some ethno-nationalists, Sergey Baburin was a tolerable, if somewhat dated, choice (one compared his candidacy to “a trip to your city by a band that you used to listen to 30 years ago”), but the diversity within the ethno-nationalist sector of the Russian opposition makes achieving unity a constant challenge for them.
There are some bright spots for opposition at a local level, with evidence of increased protest activity related to social and economic problems in 2017. National opposition figures, however, have not yet figured out how to connect local or sectoral protests to more generalized opposition to the regime. These ongoing issues – and Putin’s high levels of popularity – mean that the prospects for an opposition revival at a national level look dim for the near future.
Potential Presidential Successors
The six year term that Putin just won is supposed to be his last. He will be 71 at the next elections in 2024 and – at the moment – term-limited from serving again as president. Immediately after the election, however, pro-Putin commentators called him ‘irreplaceable‘. There is also already speculation that the constitution will be changed to allow Putin to run again. Putin may also repeat the strategy that saw him relinquish the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev, but maintain real power. Sunday’s results – flawed as they might be from a democratic perspective – have emboldened those who want to make Putin president for life. This makes it less likely that a potential successor will be anything less than a hand-picked puppet.
Putin’s vote share increased almost everywhere it hadn’t already been sky-high due to electoral fraud. Whether these increases are the product of actual support, the efforts of loyal subordinates following orders, or a combination of both, no one is in doubt about Putin’s preeminence in Russian politics. Whereas Putin was more of a first-among-equals among the Russian elite at the time of the 2008 election, he is clearly at the center of the current political system.
Current lists of potential successors feature either uninspiring re-treads like Dmitry Medvedev, long-time loyalists like defense minister Sergey Shoigu (not much younger than Putin) or relative unknowns drawn from a younger generation of ministers and governors. With only a few exceptions, any successor will need some time and grooming in order be acceptable to other elites and the public.1Putin himself emerged from relative obscurity to the top job in 2000, but his rise to power was aided by a rebounding economy and a public desire for law and order after the chaotic 1990s.
Russia differs from other authoritarian regimes like China (until recently) and Mexico under the PRI in that it lacks institutions to regulate leadership succession. In both those systems, leaders served a limited term and then stepped aside to allow the ruling party’s chosen successor to lead. This did not happen in Russia in 2008 and 2012. Instead, the system became more personalistic and dependent on Putin, which makes an orderly succession of power much more fraught with risk for the regime.
Putin and the system he constructed are, in some ways, a prisoner of their own success. There is no one on the regime’s ‘bench’ with the prospect of matching Putin’s electoral popularity and influence over the political system. The results in the 2018 election have set an incredibly high bar for even a hand-picked candidate to meet in 2024. To be sure, the regime can orchestrate crushing electoral victories for people not named ‘Putin’ – Medvedev won 71% of the vote in 2008 – but doing so will likely involve a high degree of risk to the electoral credibility of any successor. It will also incur high costs politically in order to appease regional elites, whose support is needed to win elections. Without Putin’s personal authority, a successor will have to pay those costs in full.
Supporters of the Status Quo
Coming up with a winner was a bit tougher than coming up with losers. Even Putin – the actual winner of the election – was expected to win, so it seems redundant to term him a ‘winner’.
So I picked supporters of the status quo as the ‘winner’ of this election. Putin barely campaigned – showing up at rallies to deliver some platitudes before leaving after a few minutes. His most extensive pre-election speech – the State of the Nation address on March 1 – hit themes like infrastructure, economic development and improving quality of life. In other words, it discussed goals frequently set in previous speeches with no real new ideas for how to achieve them. He also shunned televised pre-election debates, which functioned more as freak shows than as real exchanges of views.
If you had slept through the weekend, you might be forgiven for questioning whether the vote even happened. Putin did meet with all the losing candidates and called for national unity after the election, but these are pro-forma acts expected of gracious winners. Otherwise, it’s been business as usual this week. Russian regulators have continued their long running battle with messaging service Telegram withthe Supreme Court ordering the company to hand over its encryption keys to the FSB or be blocked in Russia. The government has also shown no sign of backing down in its conflict with Britain and the EU over the Skripal poisoning, meaning that Putin’s calls for unity carry additional weight in the face of international pressure.
In other words, if you thought things were going well enough before the election, then the results confirm that plenty of other people think the same way. Putin’s approval leading into the election remained high (80% in the latest monthly report from Levada), as did the level of approval for the general state of affairs in Russia (58%). The specific issues highlighted in Putin’s March 1 speech – quality-of-life, healthcare, housing and income levels – remain.
Supporters, however, seem to have been generally satisfied enough with the current approach to vote Putin into office for another 6 years.