From the fringes of power, Ella Pamfilova has spent decades fighting against the odds. As Russia’s first female candidate for president, she ran on a largely symbolic ticket against Vladimir Putin in 2000, earning just 1 percent of the vote. As Russia’s human rights ombudsman, she sought compromise between harried advocates and hidebound officials. But as the newly appointed head of Russia’s Central Elections Commission, she faces an even more improbable task: ensuring that Russia’s notorious parliamentary elections this fall are free and fair. The stakes are high. Russia’s most recent parliamentary elections, in 2011, descended into farce as social media videos of ballot stuffing and accusations of mass voter fraud spawned the country’s largest pro-democracy and anti-Putin rallies in recent memory. The difference now, Pamfilova said in an interview, is that Putin has given a mandate for clean elections. And she says she is the proof.
“If there were not a political desire for normal, fair and open elections, then they would never choose a person like me, someone hard to work with who won’t play the subordinate,” she said over tea in a boardroom at Russia’s Central Elections Commission, adding that she thinks Putin respects her for her forthrightness. “I never brought Putin pleasant questions. I always came with problems. And he knows my difficult character.
”Not everyone will accept that logic. Skeptics have dubbed her appointment a “rebranding,” an attempt to maintain the Kremlin’s electoral stranglehold while whitewashing the memory of her predecessor, Vladimir Churov. He was dubbed “the wizard,” for his white beard and uncanny ability to predict election results.