Vladimir Putin after announcing the preliminary results of presidential elections. Source: Reuters / Vostock Photo
After the dubious victory of the ruling United Russia party in the parliamentary elections in December 2011, followed by mass protests, there was a sense that presidential candidate and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would have to assert his right to rule the country in a second round of voting. Yet, a month ahead of the presidential election, only the most naïve opponents of the regime still nurtured that hope. All the opinion surveys, including those conducted by pollsters who could hardly be suspected of being pro-government, predicted a comfortable victory for Putin on March 4.
A cynical observer might have attributed the growth in Putin's popularity solely to the powerful administrative resource of his campaign. However, Valery Fyodorov, the head of the All-Russian Center of Public Opinion Studies, said diplomatically that voters were swayed by “the candidate’s communicative policy.” Indeed, the media widely covered the prime minister’s “working trips,” most of which looked very much like campaign rallies, published his long articles and showed films about his service to his country. Opponents claim that Putin’s campaign headquarters and the media were breaking the law by presenting campaign materials in the guise of news programs. The Central Election Commission and law enforcement responded that the citizens had the right to know and were interested in knowing what the prime minister was doing.
But the high chance of Putin winning convincingly in the first round could not be attributed only to the vigorous campaign; Russians had made up their minds about Putin long before the election campaign. And many viewed him in a positive light, as a strong leader who leads a reputable life.
“Putin has not only been in power for many years, he has for many years been proving his effectiveness, and that is the main criterion by which voters judge a politician,” said Alexander Oslon, director of the Public Opinion Fund (FOM) polling center.
Andrei Milekhin, president of the Romir research institute agreed: “More and more people note his dynamism, growing competence and lack of bad habits. But what struck me most was that 50 percent of the population were unwilling or unable to find any faults with him at all. ”
Even ordinary people agreed with this asessment. “During Putin’s time, my wife and I have raised four children, they all have university degrees, we all have our own homes… and we have nine grandchildren,” wrote a man calling himself Serdjio, commenting on a pro-Putin article on the website of Russian daily Izvestia. Such naïve and laudatory, but perfectly sincere comments outnumber critical comments on the web.
The regional élites backed Putin too. “This country needs a tsar. A tsar is a courageous man who is responsible for the country,” said the president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov.
Some of his recent opponents also presented Putin with electoral gifts. Shortly before the elections, the liberal party Right Cause spoke out in support of Putin. “We hope that the course of liberalization will continue and the voters will back Vladimir Putin in the presidential elections,” read the document, which was approved by 47 out of 70 attendees at the party's conference. While stressing that they do not support Putin’s political platform all the way, the Right Cause members stated: “We see that he has taken on board all the main initiatives of [our] party aimed at economic and political liberalization.”
But another important element contributing to Putin's victory was the absence of a strong opponent. Judging from the results of opinion polls before the elections, his closest rivals, Communist Party of Russia (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, would each take about 10 percent of the votes while the social-democrat Sergei Mironov of the Just Russia party and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov would win still fewer votes.
“In terms of the arrangements for monitoring the voting process, the elections of the Russian president on March 4 can be a model for other countries to emulate,” said Andrei Isayev, a United Russia party official. After the polls closed, thousands of people came out into the streets to celebrate Putin’s victory.
But naturally the opposition is of a different opinion. On March 5, the losers agreed to review the returns at 10 polling stations in Moscow. Numerous violations were reported throughout the day on the Internet and discussed by Russian voters.
LDPR leader Zhirinovsky is sure that fraud can be proved and then “we will say that we do not recognise these elections.”
Mikhail Prokhorov, who debuted in this year's president election, may be the new face of the Russian opposition. According to Central Election Commission, he received 7.7 percent of the overall vote and in bigger cities, his results were even higher. In Moscow, he came in second. Experts say that it indicates the complete disconnection of younger voters with the Soviet era and a strong call for a new generation of politicians. “It is a painful strike to the older opposition represented by the communists and liberal-democrats,” said Valery Fedorov, the head of All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM). “The leaders of these parties will be talking a lot about Prokhorov, mainly criticizing him, because it hurts to learn that you time is running out.”
Sergei Udaltsov, coordinator of the radical Left Front, was in still a more pugnacious mood. Addressing a For Fair Elections rally in St. Petersburg on Saturday, he promised to bring Putin back from Moscow to his native Petersburg. “You can do whatever you like with him here,” he told those gathered.
“If the authorities cheat us after the elections, we will launch an indefinite protest all over the country. We should all take to the streets. We will not leave until justice is restored,” Udaltsov said.
His comments were echoed by activist blogger Alexei Navalny: “What will take place is not an election, and we must demand free elections to the State Duma within a year and free presidential elections within two years,” he said in an interview with RBC Daily.
The opposition movement has sworn to continue its rallies, and hopes to bring out up to half a million protesters in Moscow and about 200,000 in St. Petersburg.
But the protesters are unlikely to achieve their declared goals. In addition to substantial electoral support, Putin has the wherewithal to keep his main campaign promises. According to Sberbank experts, with the price of oil at $95 per barrel, millions of Russians will receive the wage and pension rises promised by Putin without straining the state budget. If he gave promises and kept them, let him rule, people would think. They will probably be in the majority, though not as overwhelming a majority as the official election returns show.
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