Elections, however rigged and manipulated, have been an important source of legitimacy for the political system that Vladimir Putin created. Elections provide the procedural background to electing the docile legislatures on which to pass laws. For Putin they provide an opportunity to show force by putting his popular support – or his ability to squeeze the desired result out of public officials – on display. For Putin’s supporters and his lieutenants in public administration they provide an opportunity to declare their support for his rule. For opposition supporters – occasionally and under controlled circumstances – they provide an opportunity to express their disagreement and score small victories. Elections have underpinned Putin’s two decades of rule but as we have seen recently, they require an increasing amount of engineering and tinkering. And this will cause problems.
Recently I spent a couple of weeks in Hungary and I was struck by the similarity between the billboards popularizing Viktor Orban’s latest „national consultation” survey and the billboards that advertised Russia’s constitutional plebiscite in June and July, not surprising perhaps given the keenness of Hungary’s authoritarian leader to copy – sometimes word-by-word – the policies and methods of his Russian ally. (In case you are not familiar with „national consultation” surveys: they are practically propaganda material, a series of manipulatively worded „questions” and answers sent to Hungarian households to demonstrate that Orban’s policies enjoy the support of the public.) „Our country. Our constitution. Our decision,” declared the Russian billboards. „Your country. Your voice,” said the Hungarian billboards. Perhaps the background was a little less bland.
Of course it neither case was it really up to the voters to decide. But repeating the lie that it is is part of the manipulation. Electoral autocracies depend on voters’ accepting that while elections can only have a limited effect on who holds political power – and often they are degraded to a ritual pledge of support to the incumbent – the outcomes produced by the system will satisfy enough people so that the foundations of the political order are never seriously questioned. It’s no wonder that Putin, like Orban, relies on extensive opinion polling.
But how hollow can an electoral autocracy be?
Tricks and tools
Sergey Shpilkin, an analyst of electoral fraud in Russia has analysed and quantified fraud in legislative and presidential elections for more than a decade. Shpilkin’s studies focused on distinct peaks in turnout and vote for United Russia or Putin around round numbers and the divergence of turnout/support curves from the normal distribution. This essentially showed that the pro-Kremlin vote is often significantly higher in polling stations registering unusually high turnout than in polling stations experiencing normal turnout (indicating ballot stuffing) and that an abnormally high number of polling stations reported turnout and/or pro-Kremlin vote figures close or equal to round numbers (indicating invented results). Critics have pointed out that electoral data did not always have to follow the curve of normal distribution and that Shpilkin’s method did not account for electoral islands (e.g. municipalities that get a significant cash injection at a strategic moment before a vote). However, it also does not fully take into account coercion in places like the Caucasus where authorities routinely report turnout figures close to 100%. Based on what we know about methods of electoral fraud in Russia from independent observers, Shpilkin’s estimates are a fairly good proxy to estimating electoral fraud.
In 2016 Shpilkin claimed that results of the Duma election were falsified at roughly the same level as they were in 2007 and 2011. This meant about 12 million extra votes added to United Russia’s real vote total. (A study by researchers at two American universities in 2011 estimated 14 million, the same ballpark). What fraud did to the results of these elections is also telling: in 2007, with United Russia’s popularity at its height (Levada Center measured it at 59 percent in August 2007), it might have helped the governing party win a two-thirds supermajority of Duma seats. In 2011, as the popularity of the party started to plunge (Levada measured it at 54 percent in August 2011, but this was before the announcement of Vladimir Putin’s decision to return to the presidency), it almost certainly helped United Russia hold on to a parliamentary majority. In 2016, it barely made a difference: even as its popularity descended into the low 30s (Levada measured it at 31 percent in August that year), United Russia officially scored more than 55 percent of the vote and more than 76 percent of seats in the Duma.
This is largely because parallel to ballot-stuffing and other kinds of falsification the Kremlin’s electoral strategy has had two more elements: demotivation of the opposition electorate, and tinkering with the electoral law. I wrote about the statistically visible demotivation of opposition voters more extensively in December. Changes to electoral legislation also closely followed the Kremlin’s interests. Before the 2007 election the the 225 single-member constituencies, in which half of Duma deputies had been elected, were abolished and the threshold raised from 5 to 7 percent. An option to vote „against all” was also scrapped. This essentially eliminated independent deputies and small parties from the parliament. Before the 2016 election, as United Russia’s fortunes were in decline, the single-member districts were reinstated and the election was moved from December to September in order for the campaign to coincide with the „silly season”. A first-past-the-post system with an often articifially inflated number of „opposition” candidates ensured sweeping victories of United Russia candidates in these districts (90 percent of seats with – officially – 50 percent of the vote). At the same time, registering a party had become increasingly difficult – until last year when a number of new, nominally opposition parties suspected of having ties to the authorities appeared to weaken attempts to unify the opposition vote.
Presidential elections have also seen riggings and falsifications, but on a smaller scale. In 2018, for example, an estimated 10 million votes were added to Vladimir Putin’s grand total in order to meet the targets set by the Presidential Administration, even as Alexey Navalny called on Russians to boycott the vote. Even so, Putin’s electoral results stayed close to his approval rating. In 2004, according to Levada his approval rating, at 81 percent, was actually higher than his electoral result (71.9 percent). In 2012, he returned to the presidency with a relatively modest 63.6 percent, even as his approval rating was 68 percent. In March 2018, riding the very end of the „Crimean consensus”, Putin’s approval rating as measured by Levada was 80 percent and he won the presidential election with 76.7. There are various issues with these numbers, of course. First, Putin’s approval rating is actively massaged by the Kremlin’s media machinery to reach unrealistically high figures. Second, a presidential approval rating – the proportion of people who approves of Putin’s activities – is not the same as Putin’s electoral rating – the proportion of people who are ready to go and vote for him. However, as presidential elections have increasingly resembled a ritual to declare support for Putin (for some) and a referendum on the president (for others), the difference between the two concepts have faded.
Unlike United Russia, which has relied on electoral fraud for practical reasons, Putin has hardly needed it to win elections. One can argue that he would probably even have easily won the 2012 election, in spite of all the controversy about his „castling” with Medvedev, without massive electoral fraud. Putin however needs more than just an electoral victory: in order to drive home the notion that he has no real alternative, he needs to win elections with high support and a high turnout. This is why the nation-wide plebiscite on Putin’s constitutional reforms – practically a vote on Putin himself and the system that he created – was awkward. According to Shpilkin’s estimates, the Kremlin needed an unprecedented amount of rigging – it is estimated that around 22 million votes were added – to deliver the result that Putin wanted to see, and the official result – 78 percent yes with a turnout of 67 percent – was far from Putin’s latest approval ratings (or what opinion polls suggested). Just like the 2016 Duma election, the official result was vastly different from the situation on the ground.
Something similar happened in the September 2019 regional elections. These were preceded by large-scale protests in Moscow against a decision not to allow well-known opposition candidates onto the ballot. The election saw the debut of Alexey Navalny’s „smart voting” initiative, which encouraged voters to support the most popular non-United Russia candidate, which led to moderate successes. It also saw United Russia all but wiped out in the Khabarovsk Krai where less than a year later the arrest of governor Sergey Furgal led to unprecedented protests. Following the vote I wrote:
„[W]hile the Kremlin had a much tighter grip on these elections than on the ones [in 2018], this did not come without a price. It required farcical administrative tricks against opposition candidates, harsh repression in Moscow and shameless rigging reminiscent of the 2011 Duma election. For the sake of securing a desired outcome, the authorities ended up destroying many elements of the electoral façade that the political system is depending on. This can hardly be a long-term strategy.”
But now it seems that it will be anyway. Despite all the awkwardness, the authorities seem to have concluded that the means used to deliver the results in September and in July – denied registration, increased repression, voting stretched out over several days, minimizing the access of independent observers, falsification-prone online-voting introduced in two regions – worked and that they should be elevated to a norm. Regional elections in September will take place over three days and the Kremlin’s representatives in certain riskier regions are busy denying registration to „systemic opposition” candidates. (Subtler means of pressure are also used: in Novosibirsk, for instance, there seems to be enough bad blood between the local chapter of the Communist Party and the campaign linked to Navalny’s allies that the chances of tactical voting seem to be small).
Even if many voters have become cynical about elections in Putin’s Russia, this legitimacy deficit matters. It is easier to put up with a farcically hollowed-out election as long as the result largely reflects actual attitudes or as long as it is broadly understood that the election does not matter anyway. But the gap between official results and people’s attitudes has been widening. The fact that an ever-increasing toolbox of tricks and workarounds is necessary to produce the same result is proof of this. And in certain cases people seem to have realized that elections do matter: Khabarovsk is a case in point and in the past two years several local protest movements highlighted people’s desire for responsive local leadership.
In the past years Putin’s trust rating has tumbled much quicker than his approval rating. In May I argued that this was because an increasing number of Russians questioned his ability to put his promises and policies into practice:
„Russians have been asked to believe that in case a problem cannot be solved at the local level, Putin is able to solve it; that while the president may not participate in day-to-day matters, but his orders are eventually carried out. This is what recent months have called into question. (…) Many look to Putin for guidance, but instead of offering solutions or giving concrete orders he calls on lower-level officials to come up with solutions. And when he does give orders, these are not always carried out. When Russian doctors launch an online petition to call on the government to pay out bonuses that Putin promised a month ago, they are not questioning Putin’s decisions, but his ability to implement them.”
This is one way of looking at it. But Putin is also a symbol of the system that he created as well as his most visible authority. His falling trust rating may also reflect people’s falling trust in the authenticity of the system: that is, that with all its deficiencies, lies and contradictions, it is able to produce outcomes that they want. Opinions can be tracked, anticipated, manipulated and often placated. But every once in a while it will turn out that people want something that the authorities are unable or unwilling to give to them. The more often this happens, the more elections will matter, and consequently, the more difficult it will become to maintain a hollowed out electoral authoritarianism.