Putin Wins Big in Undemocratic Election
The international community is demanding a probe. Mark John and David Brunnstrom for Reuters:
Europe joined the United States on Monday in demanding Russia probe alleged abuses in an election won overwhelmingly by party, and Germany denounced the poll as undemocratic. European states expressed alarm over the outcome of Sunday’s parliamentary poll after rights watchdogs said the campaign had been marred by biased media coverage and abuse of government resources in favor of Putin’s United Russia.
But analysts said there was acknowledgement by many European states that Moscow, whose cooperation the West wants for disputes from Iran to Kosovo, was increasingly impervious to criticism from outside.
Indeed, Putin is taking the criticism in stride.
President Vladimir Putin on Monday hailed his party’s landslide election victory and brushed off opposition charges of fraud that were echoed by foreign observers and European governments. “The legitimacy of the Russian parliament has without a doubt been increased,” Putin told reporters after visiting a space research centre in Moscow.
With 98 percent of ballots counted from Sunday’s election, Putin’s United Russia party had secured 64.1 percent of the vote, giving it more than two thirds of seats in parliament — a majority sufficient to change the constitution.
“It is clear that Russians will never let their country go down the destructive path of certain countries in the former Soviet space,” Putin said, referring to pro-Western popular revolts in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.
The Communist Party came a distant second with 11.6 percent, while two other pro-Kremlin parties — the ultra-nationalist LDPR party and the centre-left A Just Russia party — got 8.2 percent and 7.8 percent respectively. Seven other parties failed to achieve the election threshold, making it the first time since the Soviet collapse in 1991 that the liberal opposition failed to win a single seat. The nationwide turnout was 62 percent, but in war-ravaged Chechnya it reached Soviet-style records of 99 percent of eligible voters, according to election officials.
Obviously, one does not get results like this in free and fair elections. That Putin has dragged Russia back into authoritarian rule is a given.
At the same time, though, there’s little doubt that he’s incredibly popular. As AP’s Douglas Birch observes, “Putin is widely credited here with leading his country out of the social and political wilderness of the 1990s when the collapse of Soviet power nearly led to the disintegration of Russian society.” So, while United Russia assuredly wouldn’t have won by these margins in elections held according to international norms, the order of finish might well have been identical.
What happens next is unclear. Putin is constitutionally prohibited from remaining in office past next year. Will he now change the constitution? Or simply rule under a different title?
CNN guesses the latter, which strikes me as most likely as well.
Putin was top of United Russia’s list of candidates, guaranteeing him a parliamentary seat and allowing him to extend his influence when his presidential term ends in 2008, perhaps as prime minister.
“I headed United Russia ticket, and, of course, it’s a sign of public trust,” Putin said in televised comments reported by AP, adding that victory would let the United Russia party cement its power base in the Duma.
Douglas Birch paints a grim future.
There is little incentive for Putin to relinquish power over Russia, which is flush with revenue from oil and natural gas and where his power arguably rivals that of many of his Soviet and czarist predecessors.
Candidates for president may register until Dec. 23. Many are expected to do so, but only Putin’s hand-picked successor seems to have a real chance of winning. Whoever is chosen is likely to be a figurehead, or could even step aside early to allow Putin to recapture the presidential office. Currently the constitution prohibits a president from running for a third consecutive term.
Two-thirds of Russians polled by the respected Levada Center recently said they would support Putin serving another term. But Putin has repeatedly promised not to run, and a reversal would be out of character for the stern, tough-talking former KGB spy.
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist and political analyst, believes that Putin will become United Russia’s party chief and that the future president would follow his orders – recreating to some extent the Soviet-era model in which the government was subservient to the Communist Party. “A president will be nominated by United Russia, and he will obey party discipline,” she commented recently.
Sunday’s election, meanwhile, eliminated all of Putin’s liberal opponents from parliament. Amended election rules barred individual races that in the past allowed mavericks to win seats.
“We will continue our fight for democracy and liberal values,” retiring deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov told the Associated Press in an interview Friday. “Not in the parliament, but in society. It’s like in Soviet times, we are becoming dissidents because there are no legal ways to be in the opposition.”
Allusions to the Soviet era are hardly misplaced. Indeed, the parallels to the rise of Adolph Hitler, who came to power through the ballot box (albeit in elections impacted by Nazi violence and intimidation) are also hard to overlook.
Stories via OTB News. Photo source: Getty Images/CNN.
I’m no fan of Putin and don’t see his election as a good thing. But I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that “you don’t get election results like this in a free election”.
Consider if the US had lost the cold war. If our economy had collapsed under the military spending. Of course in this case, a “free election” 20 years later wouldn’t be realistic, but hang with me for a moment. We see the US economy collapse. Mafia, gangs, drugs, prostitution, etc are all rampant. Now someone shows up who makes a plausible claim that he will restore the lost greatness of America. Further, the opposition is divided, not unified in one party.
Now look at 1984. Reagan won based on restoring America’s greatness. 1984 was a referendum on his dream and leadership. A switch of 0.09% of the vote in the opposition candidates home state would have given Reagan a sweep of all 50 states (though DC would have proudly been liberal democratic). Reagan won 97.58% of the electoral vote and 58.77% of the popular vote. And the US was no where near a low point as Russia is.
All that said, it is apparent that there were more than a few dirty tricks on Putin’s part. His openness with election observes shows it was likely the election was in part rigged. But all that fact on this election doesn’t support the categorical statement that it couldn’t have happened in a free election.
Right. But the electoral vote is a binary situation; the popular vote is the accurate reflection of popular will.
Even with a booming economy and weak opposition, an incredibly popular president won less than 60 percent of the vote. And his coalition wasn’t potentially split with other right-of-center parties on the ballot.
While it may be hard to think of it from this side of the fence, Putin is popular in Russia and the Soviet Union is an object of substantial nostalgia for many Russians. They don’t see it the way we do. They look upon it as a time of pride in Russian might and find that today’s straitened circumstances compare unfavorably with the good old days.
A key problem is that for Russia there hasn’t been a straight line between a free society and prosperity. At least part of the explanation for that resides in the way that the old regime was eliminated, abetted by Western experts. 70 years of totalitarian rule had left Russia with only two remaining institutions on which to build: the remains of the old Soviet bureaucracy and organized crime. Sometimes it’s darned hard to tell the difference between the two.
Dave- you left out a third (and IMHO the most important), the military. The Russians are rebuilding their military as a reflection of its newfound wealth and perceived great power ambition. But I agree with you that it (at least to me) is totally within the realm of possibility that Putin could have indeed gotten such a large percentage of the vote without having to resort to any type of shenanigans, such is his enormous popularity at the moment.
My key point remains: you build on the institutions that exist not the ones you wished existed. Russia’s liberal and democratic institutions weren’t up to the task.
Not to mention that the reformers (like Gaidar) have been tainted by their association with the policies of economic reforms in the Yeltsin era that pauperized millions of vulnerable citizens, and the era of the oligarchs.
LBJ took more than 60% of the vote, though the circumstances don’t match up as nearly as with Reagan. FDR’s win in 1936 of more than 60% is another example. I think the difference of 6% between the two examples was how much further Russia slipped from super power status.
Reagan’s election was at least in part a referendum on whether we would seriously contest the Soviet empire in the cold war. I think few, if any, Reagan supporters in 1984 seriously thought he could bring down the soviets. But just being willing to seriously enter the contest was a swing up from life under Carter. What Putin is trying to do is much more dramatic.
Remember, I think we are both agreeing that the election in question is tainted. The question is if a free election could produce such dramatic results and I would contend that they could given the right circumstances. If the US had lost the cold war and an election was held by someone who could restore the US to a cold war peak (with promises to make living conditions better for the masses), I could easily see 64% for such a person/party. We are only talking about 3 to 8% difference in living memory for our own history.
Agreed that a US party could get 64 percent of the vote under the right circumstances. I’m less sure of 99% turnout or a 6-to-1 victory margin, however.
I agree on the 99% turn out, though if you put stiff enough penalties in place for not voting, maybe. The 6-1 is not likely in the US only because we are effectively a 2 party country. In a parlimentarian multi-party situation, maybe. Probably the best US example would be to look at Louisiana which is the closest we come with the initial election. Even there, the two party system limits the probability of 6-1 against everyone else.
One can see from traveling in Russia that Putin is indisputably popular. But he Sovietized the election by loading the dice — unsatisfied with a mere victory, he made it overwhelming to justify his continued rule past the constitutional limit.
That I think says everything — it shows that Putin is indeed a traditional Russian leader in the sense of the Czars and the Soviets, planning to rule until infirmity or death make it impossible.
What does that mean for the West? One can quibble over the power centers, but I think the survival of the energy and intelligence spheres from the rubble of the Soviet Union strongly underlie Putin’s political and economic power, at home and abroad. It’s the policies and actions of these two parts of the Russian government — under Putin’s influence — that the U.S., Europe and their allies have to contend with possibly for the next decade or more.
Putin will be advancing Russia’s best interests as he sees them. It so happens that more than a few of those aims are incompatible with the West’s.
Steve LeVine, author
The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea (Random House)