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Vladimir Putin has a turnout problem

Russian voters at polling station
Election officials prepare a voting booth in the village of Gusino, outside Smolensk, western Russia, on Sept. 17, 2016. Photo: Sergei Grits / AP

The Kremlin has no worries that Vladimir Putin will be re-elected with a commanding majority on March 18. Securing a commanding turnout could still be a headache, however.

Legitimacy matters to Russia's leadership, which has a "70/70 plan": 70% turnout, 70% of the vote for Putin. But recent polling suggests closer to 60% plan to vote, with some experts predicting a drop as far as 53%. So what's sapping enthusiasm?

  • Putin's announcement last week of his intention to seek a fourth term removed the only real intrigue from the race. With no viable opposition candidates running, there's little incentive to participate in an effectively pre-determined vote.
  • Economic growth has stalled: The fastest Russia's GDP has grown since 2013 is 2%, and most people have seen their real disposable income shrink in that time. At the end of the day, pocketbook issues outweigh geopolitics.

To boost turnout, the election was moved to the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, though Putin's surge in support after that move has become old news. And in a somewhat different voter incentive, select polling places will be turned into carnivals. Will either tactic work? We'll find out soon enough.

The bottom line: Putin will be re-elected. But the Kremlin faces the delicate balancing act of holding elections real enough to win popular legitimacy, but not so real as to risk an embarrassment.

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