Autocrats have a talent for producing impressive election results. In the last elections they ever ran in, Indonesian dictator Suharto achieved 75 percent of the vote; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had 89 percent; Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu mastered an impressive 98 percent. My friend Boris Vishnevsky, a leading opposition legislator in St. Petersburg, likes to point out that Ceausescu still had a 99 percent approval rating in December 1989, just one week before his trial. As all these victors found out in the end, the results of manipulated “elections” in authoritarian systems are a poor indicator of the actual state of public opinion.
Sunday’s presidential “election” in Russia was marked by the customary vote-getting methods. Monitoring conducted by organizations such as Open Russia, Golos and the Anti-Corruption Foundation documented a plethora of violations, including ballot-stuffing, bloated voter rolls, “voting” by dead people, coercion by employers, expulsion of election observers and multiple vote-casting (“carousel voting”). That election rubber-stamped Vladimir Putin’s fourth (de facto fifth) term as president with nearly 77 percent of the (official) vote.
Ultimately, though, voting-day violations were largely irrelevant. This election was rigged long before the first vote was cast. The defining feature of Russia’s 2018 presidential vote was that it was an election without choice. Two major opposition figures who had planned to run against Putin were absent from the ballot on Sunday. Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister and leader of the People’s Freedom Party, was shot and killed in February 2015 on a bridge in front of the Kremlin. Alexei Navalny, a prominent anti-corruption campaigner, was barred from running, thanks to a trumped-up Russian court sentence that was assessed by the European Court of Human Rights as “arbitrary.” It isn’t difficult to win when your opponents are not on the ballot.