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Russian elections: despite fixing the opposition, Vladimir Putin wants lots of people to vote for him

todayMarch 14, 2024 7

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By Natasha Lindstaedt, University of Essex


Russians head to the polls this week in a presidential election that will almost certainly result in Vladimir Putin decisively winning yet another six-year term. When he does, it will make him the longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin. Advance polling indicates he will earn 75% of the vote and face little or no meaningful opposition.

His three main opponents are each polling at 5% or less, while any candidate thought likely to attract significant support – or who would use the campaign to robustly oppose the war in Ukraine – has been banned, imprisoned or killed.

Despite the clear path to victory for Putin, the Kremlin reportedly spent more than €1 billion (£850 million) on propaganda in the lead up to the elections. Much of this budget was allocated to infotainment to promote nationalism, unity and traditional values.

But why would a regime in the midst of a war, that has cost Russia more than US$200 billion (£156 billion) feel the need to put so much effort into a sham election?

Putin may be trying to avoid the same pitfalls of other dictatorships such as Iran which saw record low turnout of 41% in its recent parliamentary elections, the lowest since its 1979 revolution, reflecting widespread disillusionment with the Islamic regime.

The same could be said for Venezuela, which registered a turnout of 31% for its 2020 parliamentary elections. Putin is certainly trying to avoid any perceptions of illegitimacy, or a large protest vote in the wake of the death of his biggest opponent, Alexei Navalny.

Yet why bother to hold elections at all? Research has shown that while elections can pose some risk to dictatorships in the short term, they can also help prolong autocracies. Despite all the questions over their validity, they are often presented in such as way as to lend the winner a degree of legitimacy – both at home and internationally – and it also helps the regime gather intelligence on its popularity.

But Putin seems to be going beyond the usual autocratic project of trying to project the popularity of his regime. Over the 24 years of his rule, elections have become an opportunity for Russians to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime. They are a spectacle, similar to a military parade, and indicative of Putin’s new totalitarian hold on Russia.

Though authoritarianism is on the rise, only a very few regimes are considered totalitarian today – among those that are, North Korea stands out – with its one-party state run by the Kim family dynasty. Maintaining totalitarian rule requires a great deal of effort by the state to mobilise the public to be fervent supporters of the regime. Most totalitarian regimes also consume large amounts of resources to constantly spy on their people.

Authoritarian regimes may use propaganda and some degree of surveillance and repression but, for the most part, autocracies are willing to accept an apathetic and complacent public that is unwilling to rock the boat.

How Putin deals with dissenting ‘scum’

But things have changed in Russia, since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Within a month of launching the invasion, Putin was issuing warnings against those who didn’t support his war aims.

“Any people, and especially the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish the true patriots from the scum and the traitors, and just to spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths,” Putin said.

As the war moves into a third year, Putin knows he may need to call on more Russians to fight. As a result, propaganda has been intensified throughout Russian society to reinforce parallels with the “great patriotic war” (the second world war) which, for Russia, was an existential crisis, and which every school pupil discovers as their country’s finest hour.

Patriotic education is also designed to instil contempt for Ukrainian statehood and students and teachers have been encouraged to denounce any opposition to the war.

Public employees who depend on the state, have been asked to take part in anti-Ukrainian rallies. Citizens have also been encouraged to inform on neighbours who oppose the war.

Russia used to tolerate a moderate degree of dissent, but this is no longer the case. And the punishments have also changed. Rather than face a fine for protesting or speaking critically of the regime, these “offenders” now attract prison time.

After Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov claimed that Russia had become totalitarian in February, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Prison sentences have not just become more common, they are longer, too. Activist and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison for denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Police raids have also become more common. In the past, it was only notable critics of the regime who could face arrest. Today, any citizen who expresses dissent can face retribution.

Weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Duma passed legislation to make it a crime to refer to the war in Ukraine as anything other than a “special operation” – with a 15-year prison sentence levied at those convicted.

Undoubtedly, since the invasion, Russia has demanded active support from its citizens, not just acquiescence. With the upcoming elections taking place, abstaining and being uninterested in politics is no longer tolerated. Even the occupied parts of Ukraine are being strongly encouraged (by armed men) to vote. Putin wants to win in a landslide, and these elections are designed to be a coordinated and absurd display of his “popularity”.The Conversation

Natasha Lindstaedt, Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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