The Call

Should Putin cheat … to help his opponents?

Should Putin cheat … to help his opponents?

By Alexander Kliment

The upcoming Russian presidential election is a bore. There is a certain novel excitement in predicting whether Vladimir Putin — facing unprecedented but still-manageable protests — will win the first round this Sunday or take the election in a runoff three weeks later, but the outcome is certain: Putin will be Russia’s next president. Again.

That said, how he wins the election could shape the way he is viewed, both at home and abroad, and shape the political landscape that he encounters once he takes office in early May. Here there’s room for a bit of intrigue — even a bit of conspiracy.

Right now, Putin is poised to win in the first round. Most polling places him above — or within mild fraud’s reach of — the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. Even if the authorities don’t explicitly order vote-rigging, Russia’s Kremlin-appointed governors have a natural incentive to pad Putin’s numbers, and so do their local bureaucracies.  

But with protests set to grow after his election, it might behoove Putin to pick up the phone and order a few ballot boxes stuffed…for the opposition.

True, it would be a gambit without much precedent in the annals of electoral manipulation, but by orchestrating a tactical defeat within a larger contest that he is sure to win, Putin could tranquilize several tigers with one dart.

On the face of it, a victory after two rounds of balloting and potentially a few head-on debates could help shore up Putin’s electoral legitimacy, even if critics and protesters would rightly point out that the lack of genuine electoral competition makes elections — even cleaner ones — procedural at best.

Equally importantly, a second round would enable Putin to make a stark après moi le deluge argument at home and abroad.

In a runoff, Putin would face — and defeat — a familiar foil: Gennady Zyuganov, the bellowing, broad-browed leader of Russia’s Communist Party (KPRF) and perennial runner-up in the country’s presidential votes.

Putin is rightly criticized for presiding over a system in which political accountability is weak, corruption is rife, rule of law is spotty, and the overlap between political and economic power is unseemly.

But in a direct faceoff with Zyuganov, whose platform calls for the outright nationalization of the economy and a latter-day reconstitution of the USSR, Putin could easily ask protesters — and foreign critics — to pick their poison. There are protest votes and there are protest votes: few Russians would cast their lot with Zyuganov in hopes of improving the current system, and what foreign capital would really prefer Zyuganov to Putin?

Putin could also point out that the third most popular politician in Russia is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the clownishly cantankerous xenophobe who leads the right-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Among other highlights in a career of memorable antics, Zhirinovsky has proposed the use of nuclear waste to poison the Baltics, and exploding nuclear weapons in the Atlantic to drown Great Britain

As things currently stand in Russia, with a newly emboldened but still inchoate liberal opposition, Putin’s ouster could open the way for a menacing red-brown patchwork of communists and ultranationalists. A two-round election would enable Putin to make that argument clearly, if cynically. 

Still, whatever the advantages of a two-round victory, Putin is probably intent on winning in the first round. In a warped democracy, where elections are chiefly tests of the system’s ability to manufacture support for itself, a first-round loss might cause key elite groups to question whether Putin still has firm control over the political tools and structures he has created.

And in a system based more on personal and political patronage relationships than on institutions, fraying allegiances among elites could well be a much more serious problem for Putin, at least in the short term, than the protest movement.

But there is a longer-term challenge that Putin will quickly have to come to terms with once he is inaugurated in May. Demonstrators are demanding a system in which the alternatives to the status quo are something more than convenient, anachronistic buffoons, and in which the number of rounds in a presidential election is decided on the ballot rather than in the Kremlin.

Alexander Kliment is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Eurasia practice.