Thoughts on yesterday’s election

March 5, 2012

Nate

Yesterday Russia held its presidential elections as scheduled, and as assumed (if not actually scheduled as well), Vladimir Putin won nearly 65 percent of the vote. Having served two terms as President from 2000-2008 before conceding the position to puppet leader Dmitri Medvedev, Putin is now set to rule in Russia for the next six—or more—years.

Many outside of Russia have been familiar with these elections for the last several months due to unprecedented outpourings of people into the Moscow streets against Putin as early as December. While images from these protests and reports of their massive numbers encouraged Western onlookers, these actions were too little too late if the hope was to keep Putin from extending his stay in the Kremlin. Indeed, the demonstrations were doomed from the start, falling victim to their directionless energy and expression in much the same way as has befallen the Occupy movement around the world.

That is not to say that Russia’s public antagonism toward Putin will end with his victory; indeed, as opposition groups currently amass in the larger Western cities, how Putin will handle their animosity is perhaps the largest question mark in the public mindset today. What will severely hinder the legitimacy of the demonstrations, however, is that their rallying cry for clean elections has been delivered without the desired result. Instead of nominating a face to take on Putin, the amorphous demonstrations took on the formless foe of opaqueness, allowing the reigning United Russia party to deliver sufficiently clean elections while the opposition remained unprepared, and in doing so renew their own credibility without much added threat.

What Putin will do with this reaffirmation is anybody’s guess, but a guess of “nothing new” will probably be close to the mark. This is the exact opposite of what usually happens back home: having been elected, a candidate usually claims a “mandate of the people” and mobilizes his platform to change the political situation, but here the status quo is painted gold with a pessimistic eye toward change. The elections were rife with repetition. Of the four opposition candidates, three of them had been running unsuccessfully for at least twelve years. Mikhail Prokhorov, the single new face, didn’t seem to get it, claiming a desire to end Russia’s world-famous corruption and unify with Europe and the Euro zone.

The saddest part of these elections is how clear it has become that Russia still does not understand how a democratic system functions. That Putin is even a candidate does not bode well for the country. He has amended the Constitutional limits on presidential power from two terms to two consecutive terms, and the people have overwhelmingly supported him in this with no regard for the system that ostensibly prohibits such concentration of power. After talking with people both for and against Putin, the only reason I can come up with to explain this is lack of comprehension, and lack of competition. State-run channels are dominated by the man, interrupted regularly but briefly by shots of Medvedev (for now) and Obama. In many respects, domestic news reports amount to little more than reviews of what Putin did today.

It comes as no problem that the ruling United Russia party is effectively without a platform, because other parties have completely failed to modernize, feeling the heat from those in power since the before the end of the Soviet Union. Europe may have its Social Democrats, but out here there are only the Communists, headed by the same Evgenii Zyuganov that wracked Yeltsin’s nerves with a second round of voting some five elections ago. Despite an entire lack of appeal, Zyuganov still won 17% of the vote this time, and Prokhorov, a man with no party whatsoever, took another 7%. This means that at least a third of the voting populace (another 10% voted for opposition candidates) is demanding a viable second point of view, but much like the demonstrations in Moscow, this energy has yet to find a real conduit into national politics.

What is more, at least 20% of Russian voters claim to not know who to vote for until the day of the vote, and most of these vote for the incumbent. Given a law that a candidate must win 50% plus one vote to be elected, it is clear that, despite all the fear, corruption, insecurity, and nebulous information surrounding Putin, he still won largely as a result of a “who else?” mentality and an overwhelming fear of the political unknown. Unfortunately, Russia remains a country where an electorate with no initiative and a trust in government little deeper than their television screens repeatedly votes for a man with no new ideas and a history of corruption and misgivings toward positive change.

These next few days might give some insight into what to expect from the new Putin presidency as protesters make their way into the streets once again. Will he crush the opposition with force, perhaps at the cost of his reputation, or will he allow the hostility to continue unhindered, opening up the possibility of further undermining his already-crumbling power structure of bribery and fear? And what of the protests? Will they die without the fuel of corrupt elections, or will they survive to actually make an impact on Russia’s political reality? Only time will tell, but I have a feeling that, six years from now, winning the presidency will be an uphill fight for any candidate, Putin included.

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One Response to “Thoughts on yesterday’s election”

  1. Hi Nate, I always enjoy your posts. Thanks for writing, and stay safe!

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