UPDATED: Russia Elects A New (Old) President
18 March, 2018

As Russia’s presidential elections draw to close, exit polls indicate that Vladimir Putin has somewhat unsurprisingly secured another six-year term in office, receiving over 70% of the votes.

Vladimir Putin beat the seven other opponents in the presidential race, among them were socialite turned journalist Ksenia Sobchak, communist billionaire Pavel Grudinin and ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The one name missing from the candidate list was that of opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who was banned from running on account of his 2013 fraud conviction, which he claims was politically motivated.

Navalny’s exclusion from the presidential race was not the only element of the elections that brought the democracy and legitimacy of today’s vote into question. Almost as soon as polling stations opened in Russia, reports came in of widespread violations to the voting procedure, including ballot box stuffing, forced voting and restrictions on election observers.

According to Roman Udot, co-chair of the board for the voters’ rights movement “Golos,”  bribery was also used to secure votes, a tactic which harks back to the Soviet era.

“They organized like it was in Soviet times, the cheap sell out of cheap products: entertainment, singing, dancing, whatever is possible in minus 11 on the Moscow streets. They are doing this to raise turnout and they do it through the municipal factories, enterprises, through other means,” Udot told Hromadske, adding that voters were also given coupon leaflets for beauty salons and dental treatment.  

For Moscow, there was never any doubt as to Putin’s success. Instead, the main concern was turnout. Following his expulsion from the presidential race, opposition leader Alexei Navalny called on his supporters to boycott the elections, which gave the Kremlin cause for concern.

“Democracy is a double-edged sword, when you play with the candidacies, alternative candidacies, you are cut by a low turnout and questionable legitimacy. So now the authorities are fighting for turn-out,” Udot commented.

According to Russia’s Central Election Commission, two hours before the voting closed, 59.93% of the Russian population had voted, which is slightly lower than the turnout during the 2012 elections.  

In the West, however, the presidential election was not the only reason Russia was in the news. Today’s election took place amid a rising diplomatic crisis with the UK, following the March 4 assassination attempt on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal on British soil.  

READ MORE: Russian Journalist Mikhail Fishman on the Upcoming Presidential Elections

This did not seem to harm Putin’s chances of reelection though. Speaking to Hromadske earlier in the week, Russian journalist and anchor at independent media TV Rain Mikhail Fishman said that the Russian state media had a hand in spinning the crisis in Putin’s favor.

“All Russian propaganda, all Russian official media, immediately engaged in this issue and, of course, presented it as [though] Russia is under attack, with no evidence, no real reason, the British are just looking for a new pretext to start a new campaign against Russia, and this is how the world is now, and this new global situation that we are in,” Fishman stated.  

In fact, over the past couple of weeks, the diplomatic conflict between Russia and the West had “basically replaced the campaign,” according to Fishman. Issues such as Crimea, the war in Donbas and Syria, did not feature in Putin’s campaign at all.

Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk, who was covering the elections on the ground in Moscow, also noted the Kremlin’s lack of political campaign.

“What was striking was that there was no political campaign ran by the Kremlin. There was no political or economic message. Probably the conflict with Britain regarding the assassination of Skripal, former Russian intelligence officer, was the number one topic by the last day,” Gumenyuk states.  

Even though Putin’s victory today may not be a victory for Russian democracy overall, the country’s political opposition are focusing on the broader takeaways from the elections.

“Everybody confessed that this election was not about electing the president, it's about just showing that, in this system where some of the candidates were not allowed to run, in this system where the whole propaganda machine is supporting one candidate for years and years, they were participating for the access to the tribune, for the access the federal voting channels, for the opportunity, at least, to speak against [the system],” Gumenyuk comments.  

/By Sofia Fedeczko