Friday, March 2, 2012

Re-Introducing Uncertainty in Russian Elections

My earliest memory of politics is from 1976, when my father stayed up late into the night to find out if Jimmy Carter would defeat Gerald Ford. The energy and excitement that I experienced from watching election results unfold sparked my own scholarly interest in psephology.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have enjoyed many energizing conversations with Russian colleagues about elections. One of my constant refrains has been that on election eve in democratic societies, citizens do not typically know who will win. This experience is in stark contrast to most elections in Russia in which the outcome is often predetermined.*

For the first time in many years, Russian elections are electric, but not due to the likely outcome. Last week, the Levada Center released its final pre-election polling results, and as many media outlets reported, Vladimir Putin is expected to enjoy a first-round victory. The poll revealed that among likely voters, Putin would receive around 66% of the vote "if the election were held this Sunday." Since the December parliamentary election, Putin's poll numbers have been roughly at this level even in the face of public protests challenging his legitimacy. Among the alternatives, Gennadiy Zyuganov polled at 15%, Vladimir Zhirinovskiy at 8%, Mikhail Prokhorov at 6%, Sergey Mironov at 5%, and 1% of respondents indicated that they would spoil their ballots.

The poll provides a valuable baseline for interpretation of the actual results that will come in over the weekend. As I indicated in a recent article in Comparative Political Studies (gated), election returns in electoral authoritarian societies can provide insight into anti-regime sentiments even when results are manufactured. With the intense scrutiny that polling station officials will face, it will be more challenging to commit fraud at the polls and manufacture outcomes.** But, by undermining and co-opting opposition over the years, and carefully managing the choice set by excluding candidates like Grigoriy Yavlinskiy, election-day manipulation becomes less necessary to generate a Putin victory. The weekend is likely to produce some surprises in the process, and it will be worth paying attention to several matters as voting and vote-tabulation progress.
  • Role of technology in the election observation process. The state and citizens plan to use communication technologies to gather and disseminate information about the quality of administrative practices. Hackers have already probed the web cameras placed by officials in polling stations. One would also imagine that the network of citizen-observers planning to post observations via mobile phones will have honest participants along with trolls. The signal-to-noise ratio emerging from these processes will have important implications for how the election is perceived domestically and internationally.
  • Divergence from polling. How PM Putin fares in the vote, relative to expectations, is important. But, it will also be interesting to note if opposition supporters converge on an anti-regime alternative. To be sure, some candidates like Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky have core supporters who are not casting a strategic protest vote but instead are voting sincerely. However, Prokhorov,*** in particular, may be able to pull in better numbers than the Levada Center poll reported if strategic voters gravitate toward him as the best proxy for an anti-Putin vote.
  • President Putin's post-election message. Because his victory address will likely coincide with public protest, the rhetorical response, along with the reaction of law enforcement, will be an critical signal for how dissent will be managed in the short-term. Recent veiled threats in public addresses, including suggestions that the opposition is controlled from abroad and may commit heinous acts, are not promising signs from PM Putin, however.
Putin has been a savvy politician in the past, but has miscalculated in the last few months as he failed to recognize that he faces a different public than the one that first elected him in 2000. His vitality, strength, decisiveness, and work-ethic served as a welcome change from Boris Yeltsin, but the criteria for judging his presidency have changed. In the near term after the election, Putin and his allies must develop a strategy to rebuild his legitimacy amidst a more active and skeptical public that is unlikely to be quieted by bread and circuses or silent in the face of repression.

Under Putin's leadership, the 2000s served as a counterweight to the excesses of the 1990s. The uncertainty in Russian politics today does not rest in the election results, but in how the 2010s will serve as a counterweight to, or extension of, the excesses of the 2000s.

*In some years, or in some regions, election results may be all but certain in democratic societies. However, even in my reliably Republican state of Kansas, races can be close and outcomes unclear until all the ballots are counted.
**As my colleague Valentin Mikhailov suggested years ago, we should be cautious about thinking of fraud as a dichotomous outcome (i.e., elections as "dirty" or "clean"). In large elections, fraud occurs. The main questions are: how much occurs, what techniques are used, and how widespread are the effects?
***Prokhorov's skeptics suspect him of being a Kremlin-manufactured technical opposition candidate. Regardless of the origins of his campaign, he may be perceived as the best alternative for opposition voters.