By: Caroline Sha
On March 18, the Red Square in Moscow was packed as Vladimir Putin walked onto stage. The results for the 2018 presidential election had just come out and unsurprisingly, Putin had clinched the win by a landslide. After a brief speech, he chanted “Russia! Russia! Russia!” with his supporters before walking off. This is the fourth time Putin has been elected president. This term, he won with 76.7% of the vote, an increase from the 65% he earned in the 2012 election. His closest contender, Pavel Grundinin of the Communist Party, earned only 11.8%, making this election an easy win.
However, many are unhappy with the validity of the election. Critics are especially concerned with the various instances of voting fraud that seem to have occured. Cameras posted in Russian voting stations recorded people stuffing ballot boxes while election officials have reported being assaulted by voters. Moreover, many polling places reported exactly 85%, 90% and 95% turnout and 1.5 million votes seem to have appeared overnight. But most importantly, the main criticism of the 2018 election was the fact that Putin was guaranteed to win even without voting fraud. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe stated about the election, “Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice.” There are no presidential debates that Putin participates in, making it hard to compare him with the the other candidates who do not have documentaries put out in their favor. In addition, the most viable candidate against Putin, Alexei Navalny, was barred from running in the election on charges of fraud, an act he considers political retribution. The remaining seven candidates really had no chance to win, as they were already unpopular or affected by external factors. Take for example Pavel Grundinin, whose communist views could have enticed a good amount of Russians to vote for him, if not for the accusations of undeclared Swiss bank accounts published by sources associated with the Kremlin. Despite Grundinin’s protests that these are completely false, the Russia Central Election Committee required a warning about his secret accounts to be published on ballots. This most likely turned off communist-leaning voters, his base of supporters, and destroyed his chances of gaining anything close to a majority. Furthermore, opposition leaders have also stated that most of the contenders not only were fighting a hopeless fight but also were in fact planted by the Kremlin to give a semblance of democracy to the election. Kseniya Sobchak, a liberal celebrity who ran for the presidency, was accused by Navanly of being paid to run by the Russian government. Though she has confronted controversial topics in the past, her family ties to Putin have left people questioning if she is running against Putin or as his successor.
With all that in mind, it is safe to say that Putin’s main goal was not securing the majority of the vote, as that was already guaranteed. Rather, he wanted a large voter turnout so he could show the world that the people of Russia truly wanted him in power. Though he did not reach his goal of 70% this time, 67% of the country came out to vote. Nevertheless, nothing is simple in Russian politics, and it seems like Russia used some unsavory tactics to persuade and sometimes coerce people into voting. In many parts of Russia, officials used raffles and contests to entice people to come to the polls and celebrities appeared in videos endorsing Putin. These gimmicks are not too bad but less savory are the mass reports of forced voting. Many people stated that they, their bosses or educators ordered them to go to voting stations and take pictures as proof once they cast their ballot.
Amidst all these controversies, how did the rest of the world react to the Russian election? Donald Trump, against the notes of his advisors, congratulated Putin by phone call and talked to him about issues such as North Korea but not the Skripal poisoning case. Countries like China and Iran have also followed suit and responded positively towards the election. Germany answered less warmly, with a representative for Angela Merkel stating that “We have differences of opinion with Russia and we very clearly criticise Russia's policies on some issues - Ukraine, Syria," The spokesman did say that Merkel would be also congratulating the president, however, and wished to still have relations with the Russia. In contrast, Poland recoiled at the results and its deputy foreign prime minister demanded Germany halt the building of a pipeline due to supply oil to Russia.
But what’s done is done now, so what’s next for Russia? First and foremost, this is legally Putin’s last term as president. He could possibly pull a Xi Jinping but if somehow Putin is unable to retain power at the helm of the Kremlin or behind the scenes, a power struggle will surely happen in Russia. And in the political landscape in Russia, if a ultra-nationalist or young liberal comes out at top is anyone’s guess. As for what happens during this next term, Putin has secured his place in the minds of the Russian people by portraying himself as the man to bring Russia back to its former glory and it's unlikely that he is willing to give up that legacy. Whatever he does, one can be sure that it will do something along the lines of cementing his place in history as the leader who saved Russia. But, bigger picture aside, one of Putin’s most pressing issues will be the poisoning of a former Russian spy. Theresa May has publicly accused Putin of the crime, but he has denied it vehemently. This will probably be the tune for the rest of his time in power, whether that be until the end of the term he just won or until his death; no matter what, he’ll never admit wrongdoing to other countries. And with Putin’s new nuclear weapons and continued aggression adding to that, don’t expect any defrosting of tensions soon.