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Why turnout will be the detail to watch in Russia's election

March 18,2018 00:07

In a televised address on Friday, Vladimir Putin appealed to Russian citizens to vote in presidential elections on Sunday — warning that failure to cast a ballot would mean that “this decisive choice will be made without your opinion taken into ...


Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks Thursday at a youth forum, “Russia, Land of Opportunity,” in Moscow. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin pool via AP)
In a televised address on Friday, Vladimir Putin appealed to Russian citizens to vote in presidential elections on Sunday — warning that failure to cast a ballot would mean that “this decisive choice will be made without your opinion taken into account.”
The remark is a reflection of one of the key concerns for the Russian state in the election: voter turnout. There is no doubt that Putin, the incumbent candidate and a fixture at the top of Russian politics since 1999, will win the election by a wide margin. The big question will be how many Russians actually turn out and vote for him.
There was once talk of a"70 at 70" target for the election: Meaning the Kremlin wanted Putin to win 70 percent of the vote at 70 percent turnout. State polling firm Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) has projected voter turnout of almost 80 percent — a level that would be among the highest in the developed world.
But there's reason to doubt such high figures. Russia's voter turnout has been falling for years: The last nationwide elections, a Duma vote in 2016, saw turnout drop below 50 percent for the first time. In regional and municipal elections in September, turnout went even lower; dropping to just 28 percent in Moscow.
The Levada Center, an independent polling firm, estimated last year that turnout in Sunday's election could be as low as 52 percent. (The firm, the only major independent polling company in Russia, is not conducting political polls in the run-up to the presidential election because of fears it would be accused of political meddling under “foreign agent” laws.) That figure would give Russia a low voter turnout compared to developed countries — comparable to the United States, a country that has long struggled with large segments of society not voting.
Low turnout on Sunday wouldn't necessarily suggest Putin was an unpopular leader. In fact, though it is not a fair playing field in many ways, polls show Putin is remarkably popular — polling from VCIOM showed him with 69 percent approval ratings, ten times that of his nearest rival.
But the gulf in popularity between Putin and his rivals in the election may well hurt turnout, even among the Russian president's supporters. The major factor is obvious: Why bother voting when the outcome is certain? Russian sociologists have also pointed out that the electorate is younger now than it was in at the time of the last election in 2012; though many support Putin, younger voters are statistically less likely to vote.
This apathetic approach to politics should worry the Kremlin. Yes, Putin is popular, but many Russians are apathetic about Russia's government and its democracy more broadly — something that could become a big problem in the future. There is no obvious successor to Putin, who has personalized Russian politics around himself after almost two decades of power. Meanwhile, domestic problems continue to pile up, while Russia's foreign policy leaves it more and more isolated on the world stage.
Political opponents have used the threat of low turnout to criticize the government. Supporters of Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition leader barred from running in the election himself due to a previous conviction, have proposed a boycott. Though their support remains limited, Navalny and his supporters hope to embarrass Putin by depressing turnout.
In response, the Kremlin has been proactive. The Central Election Commission hired consultants to help promote the election, and officials have gone door to door to remind voters about the election. Russia's powerful state television networks have been used extensively to build a patriotic fervor ahead of the vote — Putin campaigned this week in Crimea, the peninsula Russia took from Ukraine four years ago.
But will it be enough? Putin said Friday that the election would show “the will of the people, the will of each Russian citizen will determine the path the country will take.” Low turnout may suggest many in the nation don't agree, despite his best efforts.
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