Updated Mar 17, 2018

Why Putin cares about the numbers in Sunday's election

Putin arrives to give an annual speech from the Kremlin. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

This Sunday Vladimir Putin will win his fourth term as Russian president. One of the only uncertainties ahead of the vote is how big the turnout will be. The Kremlin had initially set a target of a 70 percent result for Putin with 70 percent turnout, though it may have backed off on that in the past few days. 

Still, why does Putin care about these numbers at all? Isn’t he going to win no matter what? Won’t he remain the near-Tsar of today’s Russia no matter how many people vote for him, or don’t? Yes and yes. But…

Elections in Russia are not an exercise in democratic accountability but a test of legitimacy — a regular assessment of how good the Kremlin is at shaping a particular narrative about Putin, and the ability of the “system” to reflect it.

The Kremlin will be keen to see if local, political and economic bosses are able to get out the vote without ham-fistedly messing with the tallies in a way that invites protests.

This kind of test matters because in fact Russia’s political system is a lot messier than you’d think.

  • Personal relationships and opaque power networks are often more important than formal procedures, parties, and laws.
  • At the center of it all is a kind of spell — if everyone believes that the system is holding together, then so it is.
  • In a somewhat paradoxical way, the basic tool of democracy — elections — are the best way to gauge the effectiveness of that rather undemocratic spell.

What happens if the Kremlin falls dramatically short of the original 70/70 target?

Nothing immediately. After all, Putin will still comfortably win the election. But it would sow an unwelcome seed of doubt about Putin’s ability to continually master the theater of Russia’s politics.

Is the old man slipping? And if so, do power elites who are oriented towards him start, privately, to consider an alternative? All of this matters even more now given that the moment Putin wins, speculation will begin about what he plans to do when his next term expires in 2024, and the constitution bars him from running again.

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