Updated Mar 16, 2018

Fixed Russian election still has stakes for Putin

President Putin. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is all but guaranteed to win Russia's presidential election on Sunday. Voter turnout, on the other hand, is less certain. The Kremlin has set a target of 70% to secure the appearance of Putin's legitimacy, but, according to recent polling by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, no more than 67% of voters plan to show up. Should too few voters turn out, that might hand Putin margin of victory high enough to look illegitimate.

Why it matters: Putin isn't just looking ahead to his next term — he's looking at his own political future. He will need a resounding and legitimate-looking win to jump-start the term, as well as to plan for what happens beyond 2024 — when, for now at least, he is again barred from remaining president.

With only a couple of days to go, here are some factors that might affect turnout:

  1. Growing dissatisfaction in cities: Recent polling finds Putin's approval declining over 10% in Russia's largest cities. Although Putin has not drawn support there in past elections, his support in smaller cities — his traditional base — has fallen as well.
  2. Get out the vote operations: After a slow start, Putin is now campaigning. Meanwhile, local leaders have turned to a number of strategies to gin up enthusiasm at polling places, employing both carrots (festivals, prizes for polling organizers that draw more voters) and sticks (threats to job security).
  3. October surprises in March: A public health crisis involving a landfill near Moscow, which drove more than 5,000 people to protest at the beginning of the month, may mobilize voters. Meanwhile, should the U.K. and other European states respond more aggressively to the attempted assassination last weekend of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England — though that hasn't happened just yet — the Kremlin may take it as an opportunity to rally Russians around the flag.

The bottom line: With the election effectively decided, turnout is the best barometer for Putin's support. The degree of "legitimacy" he pulls out will be critical for building political capital as he enters his next term.

Aaron Schwartzbaum is founder and editor in chief of the FPRI Bear Market Brief and a Russia and Ukraine analyst at Geoquant.

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