Updated Mar 21, 2018

Putin's landslide a feat of election engineering, genuine popularity

President Putin attends a rally near the Kremlin on election day, March 18, 2018. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s commanding reelection victory — 76% of the vote with 67% turnout — has been described at once as a "sham" in The Washington Post and as evidence of his “overwhelming mandate” in The New York Times. The truth is more complicated.

Why it matters: The election was marked by all the usual shenanigans: roughly 10 million suspicious votes for Putin, ballot-box stuffing and blatant bias in media coverage. But the genuine popular support Putin enjoys should not be underestimated.

In some respects the race was even more unfair than usual. In past elections, approximately 25% of private sector workers and 38% of state sector workers experienced some form of political pressure from their employers to vote. The mobilization effort was far greater this time around. Putin also ran against a slate of historically weak candidates, even by Russian standards. Perhaps most important, the only serious opponent, Alexei Navalny, was banned from running.

Even as Russia faces serious economic and social problems, voters were not all frog-marched to the polls: Putin remains authentically popular. Economic stabilization, Crimea's annexation and Russia's resurgence on the global stage have all generated a level of widespread support for Putin that was reflected in the vote totals. And while his approval fell sharply in big cities before the election, it would be a mistake to ignore these trends in Russian society.

Perhaps most intriguing, a mysterious last-minute increase in registered voters gave Putin just over 50% of the vote. Of course, this means that 48% of registered voters either did not turn out despite the massive mobilization or voted for other candidates. Whether they stayed home out of apathy or in protest is uncertain. 

The bottom line: While there's no question that Putin's reelection was engineered, his political dominance is propped up by real support as well.

Timothy Frye is the Marshall Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Politics at Columbia University and the editor of Post-Soviet Affairs.

Go deeper

In photos: How coronavirus is impacting cities around the world

Revellers take part in the "Plague Doctors Procession" in Venice on Tuesday night during the usual period of the Carnival festivities, most of which have been cancelled following the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy. Photo: Andrea Pattaro/AFP via Getty Images

The novel coronavirus has spread from China to infect people in more than 40 countries and territories around the world, killing over 2,700 people.

The big picture: Most of the 80,000 COVID-19 infections have occurred in mainland China. But cases are starting to surge elsewhere. By Wednesday morning, the worst affected countries outside China were South Korea (1,146), where a U.S. soldier tested positive to the virus, Italy (332), Japan (170), Iran (95) and Singapore (91). Just Tuesday, new cases were confirmed in Switzerland, Croatia and Algeria.

See photosArrow30 mins ago - World

Debate night: Candidates' last face-off before Super Tuesday

Sanders, Biden, Klobuchar and Steyer in South Carolina on Feb. 25. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders wanted to keep his momentum after winning contests in New Hampshire and Nevada, while former Vice President Joe Biden hoped to keep his own campaign alive. The other five candidates were just trying to hang on.

What's happening: Seven contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination were in Charleston, South Carolina, for the tenth debate, just days before the South Carolina primary and a week before Super Tuesday. They spoke, sometimes over each other, about health care, Russian interference in the election, foreign policy the economy, gun control, marijuana, education, and race.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

4 takeaways from the South Carolina debate

Former Vice President Joe Biden, right, makes a point during Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders listens. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The 10th Democratic debate was billed as the most consequential of the primary thus far, but Tuesday night's high-stakes affair was at times awkward and unfocused as moderators struggled to rein in candidates desperate to make one last splash before Saturday's primary in South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

The big picture: After cementing himself as the Democratic favorite with a sweeping win in Nevada, Sen. Bernie Sanders came under fire as the front-runner for the first time on the debate stage. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who will be on the ballot for the first time next Tuesday, was a progressive foil once again, but he appeared more prepared after taking a drubbing at the Nevada debate.