Overlooked in Putin’s Reelection: The Kremlin’s Challenge Is From The Left

Please read a new essay by my Hoover colleague, Paul Gregory.

Paul Gregory // Forbes

Vladimir Putin has destroyed his liberal-democratic opposition led by Alexei Navalny and the late Boris Nemtsov through repression. The March 2018 election reveals that danger to the Putin regime comes from a communist left reconstituted along European lines. This takeaway from March 18 has been overlooked by foreign observers.

The world press has trumpeted Vladimir Putin’s “landslide” electoral victory. His March 18 re-election, they say, puts him on track to match Stalin’s record of continuous rule.

Stalin famously remarked that “the people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” Under Putin, voters are nothing compared to those who decide who can be on the ballot. Indeed, Putin’s Central Electoral Commission rejected Putin’s main liberal rival (Navalny) on a technicality. Other potential contenders have been assassinated (Boris Nemtsov) or subjected to death threats (Mikhail Kasyanov).

There should be no talk of a Russian “election” when the sitting president chooses his opponents, controls mass media, and has all the instruments of power behind his campaign. With these advantages, the outcome is not in doubt. Only the turnout has symbolic importance. If voters stay home, the leader’s image as a popular leader is tarnished. Lacking access to the ballot box, Navalny called on his followers to boycott the election. Such boycotts rarely work.

The March 18 Russian presidential “election” was therefore a battle for turnout. Citizens were offered prizes, raffles, free phones, and other inducements for voting. Managers of state companies were ordered to get out the vote, and “carrousel voting” and ballot stuffing were widely in evidence.

Putin’s Central Electoral Commission approved seven “opponents” for the presidential ballot. Two represented established parties that sit in the Russian parliament. The others were minor figures expected to get a percent or so of the vote. None would be allotted time on major networks, and they were expected to go through the motions and accept their “defeat” without objection.

Apparently, the chosen candidate of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Pavel Grudinin, rejected his assigned ceremonial role. Grudinin, a dynamic and charismatic chairman of a successful agricultural company (named after Lenin), put forward an appealing “Left Patriotic” platform that called for free education and medicine, a more equal income distribution, and pictured Putin as a puppet of the oligarchs.

Grudinin signaled that he was serious about his candidacy when he stormed off the stage of the nationally-televised “Presidential debate,” calling it a farce without the participation of Putin. The nonplussed commentator and the other candidates were in shock. Opposition candidates are supposed to feign a campaign not engage in a real one.

Grudinin’s poorly financed and amateurish campaign was based on the claim that Russia is, at heart, a leftist-patriotic country run unfortunately by crooked and greedy oligarchs, who pull the strings on Kremlin politics. This ruling Kremlin elite cares less about the everyday lives of ordinary people. Putin, for his part, maintains his favorable ratings by playing the “good czar,” who stands ready to punish bureaucratic wrongdoing that comes to his attention.

As a pre-election precaution, Putin ordered the largely independent Levada Center to refrain from election polling, leaving only state-run Vtsiom to publish public opinion polls on the election outcome. Vtsiom’s polls pegged the March 18 turnout in the high seventies, Putin’s share of the vote in the low seventies, and Grudinin in second place at seven percent.

To Putin’s irritation, Grudinin posted on  his primitive campaign website “independent” public opinion polls that showed him tied with Putin at forty percent of the vote. These unsourced polls appear to be internet-based or gathered in such a fashion to guarantee anonymity. To buttress its figures, the Grudinin campaign cited early election results from remote regions that showed him and Putin neck and neck. They also cited an unsourced poll from Omsk again showing Grudinin and Putin tied at forty percent.

Grudinin’s campaign literature hinted at panic in the Kremlin in reaction to Grudinin’s reportedly strong poll results. According to unsubstantiated reports, Putin’s team discussed removing upstart Grudinin from the ballot, but his candidacy was seen as a counter to Navalny’s call for a boycott.  With the election around the corner, it was too late to go back on that decision.

Instead of removal, Putin opted for “black PR.” Russia’s mainstream press filled with accounts of Grudinin’s illegal bank accounts abroad and of his mistreatment of employees. On election day, voters were greeted with stickers affixed next to Grudinin’s name stating that he had supplied “unreliable information” in the course of the election campaign.

Despite these handicaps, the Grudinin campaign scored results well above those predicted by the Kremlin’s pollsters. With 22 percent of the vote in, Grudinin stood at 16 percent (versus the 7 percent projected by Putin’s polling organization). By the time the Central Elections Committee released  (or massaged?) the final vote, Grudinin’s vote tally had dropped to 12 percent, but still roughly double that predicted by the Kremlin’s pollsters.

The Grudinin candidacy revealed the fear of Putin and his inner circle of a leftist populist attack from a Russian communist party reconstituted along European socialist lines. Grudinin, as a successful businessman, is not a communist true believer, but he has pegged Russia’s public mood as anti-big business, pro-labor, and anti-corruption. If this is indeed the Russian mood, Putin’s kleptocracy is ill suited to run the Russian state, and this fact should be widely understood by voters. Putin can continue to promise Russia’s return to the glory days of empire, but eventually the public will ask: What are you doing for us? And Putin’s gang will have no answer. Grudinin might; so he may replace Navalny as Putin’s Enemy Number One.

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