Russia

Vladimir Putin Has an Enthusiasm Problem

His legitimacy hinges on people caring enough to find a ballot box.

Where did Putin's voters go?

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

According to the Daily Beast's latest scoop, "a Russian operative" used Facebook to organize an anti-Muslim event in Twin Falls, Idaho, that attracted a grand total of four people. Inside Russia, the Kremlin appears to have a similar inability to stoke crowds. 

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

Last Sunday, Russia held the last string of local elections before the 2018 presidential poll. Few people showed up. In just three regions out of the 16 that elected governors, the turnout was higher than 40 percent, a level of apathy to which Russia is getting accustomed: At last year's parliamentary election, the turnout hit a record low at 47.8 percent. The hundreds of lower-level elections -- on the municipal or district level, roughly equivalent to U.S. city council and county polls -- were even more glaringly ignored.

In one rural Siberian municipality, where only 41 of 464 registered voters cast ballots, a local council member was elected after receiving just one vote -- presumably his own.

Russian President Vladimir Putin voted in the Gagarinsky municipal district in southwestern Moscow. He was one of just 8,944 people to cast valid ballots, out of 45,034 registered voters. Even this 19.8 percent turnout -- about the average for U.S. local elections, known for voter passivity -- was high for Moscow, a politicized city with lots of concerned citizens. The average turnout was no higher than 15 percent.

Marginally more people showed up in Gagarinsky because of a campaign waged by Dmitry Gudkov, a former parliament member and Putin opponent who raised funds to push anti-Putin candidates into the capital's municipal councils. His efforts resulted in what would have been a resounding slap in Putin's face had there been more voter interest: All 12 of the council members elected in the district are from the opposition Yabloko party.

Gudkov, who helped get opposition candidates into 63 districts with funding and step-by-step instructions, celebrated on Facebook: "We have shown what can be done with the right electoral organization despite the authorities' resistance and the lack of faith from a large part of society." But the achievement is hollow. As usual, Putin opponents failed to present a united front even in these elections, where the outcome has no nationwide importance: Alexei Navalny, the best-known Putin opponent, didn't back Gudkov's effort because the former legislator's team included Navalny's former campaign manager, with whom he now has a bitter feud. That must have contributed to the anti-Putin voters' apathy. 

The tiny turnout was probably even tinier, given the signs of rigging. Reuters documented a blatant episode in Vladikavkaz in Southern Russia. In Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was forced to sack the electoral commission in a district after its chairperson was caught on video discussing vote-rigging. Despite the explosive content, the video has been viewed fewer than 10,000 times on YouTube.

If Putin decides to seek another term as president, as a recent Kremlin leak suggested, he will face a dismal electoral landscape of his own making. Russia used to have an extremely active electorate. Even in the 2000s, when the results were already largely predetermined in pro-Kremlin candidates' favor, turnout numbers were closer to the high European levels than to the low U.S. ones. The country had laws setting a turnout threshold for election validity -- 20 percent for local elections, 25 percent for parliamentary ones, and 50 percent for presidential ones -- until 2006. Initially, that had little effect on voter activity. Now it's hitting a nadir.

That's a problem for the regime. Throughout his rule, Putin claimed democratic legitimacy. Despite reports of widespread rigging, it was always clear that lots of Russians voted for him and his backers. That was a far stronger expression of support for Putin's policies than the polls: Cautious Russians are often insincere with pollsters. It was also the basis for Russia's imitative system of institutions: While it was not quite democratic, it enjoyed obvious popular support.

But this time around, while Putin's preferred candidates won all the gubernatorial elections and most of the local ones -- the man who won with just one vote is from United Russia, too -- even relative legitimacy is elusive. What if people don't turn out to re-enthrone Putin next year, either? It's easy to imagine: No one but Navalny, who likely won't be allowed to run, has put their hand up yet, so unless the Kremlin can somehow recruit credible rivals for Putin, the election will be entirely devoid of intrigue.

Without a solid turnout, Putin's all-but-certain certain victory will mean a formal transition from a relatively popular dictatorship to one based on sheer suppression. Putin may already suspect that he runs a country of cynics who tolerate him because they have no choice or because they profit from it. A low turnout could make this official.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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