Vladimir Putin’s popularity, 18 years after his accession to power, leaves no doubt about the outcome of the election in Russia taking place on 18 March. His popularity has been built on the systematic erosion of his opponents’ credibility. EURACTIV.fr reports.
A second round of Russia’s presidential elections will surely not be needed. With popularity ratings that exceed 80% and 71.5%, Vladimir Putin will without a doubt be re-elected to serve a fourth term of six years during the first round on 18 March.
It is a carefully picked date, as it is the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Seen as a territorial violation by the West, the 2014 annexation restored Putin’s image in the eyes of the Russians, at a time when the economy was floundering and opinion polls were going against him.
Putin mainly owes his popularity to a very efficient communication policy. “He presents himself as a very strong, athletic man, which corresponds to the idea that the Russian population has of a leader,” said Claude Blanchemaison, previously France’s ambassador in Russia and author of Living with Putin.
“Furthermore, with Ukraine and Syria he showed a certain military capacity,” he added.
He built his image as the right man for the job thanks to an extreme control over everything around him, starting with his opponents, as the presidential administration picks the presidential candidates.
Of the seven candidates given permission to run this year, none is likely to overshadow him. First behind Vladimir Putin is the candidate of the Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin, who is only polling at 7.3% according to a survey published by state-controlled survey centre VTsIOM.
The Levada Centre, one of the country’s biggest independent survey institutes is seen by the Kremlin as a “foreign agent” and has therefore no right to publish its opinion surveys during the presidential campaign, which lasts a month.
The president’s control over the media also allows him to discredit his opponents on TV, for example in a video aired by RT of a presidential debate, where nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky is seen insulting the only female candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, and calling her a “prostitute”.
The rise in number of candidates does not represent a risk for Putin, and gives a semblance of democracy. His only real threat, Alexei Navalny, was dismissed because of criminal convictions.
The 41-year-old lawyer is known for his extensive investigations on corruption in the government, which he publishes on his blog, and for the mass demonstrations he organised.
But behind this image of a long-awaited alternative to Putin, there is a controversial character who for many years organised “Russian Marches”, which, although billed as anti-Putin demonstrations, were also nationalist events supported by racist and far-right groups.
“His programme is actually very populist. He promises nothing more than what Vladimir Putin does. […] He does not represent a viable alternative, he would only become another populist centrist president, defending the same positions as Putin. I don’t care if there are two candidates fighting for power representing the same values, what would be interesting would be defending different values,” said Ivan, a 30-year-old mathematician living in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin has not taken part in any debates, and only strives for one thing during this campaign: discrediting and “splitting his opponents left and right to keep them in a minority position”, said Blanchemaison.
Alexei Navalny has called for a boycott of the elections, urging the public not to vote.
The only risk: abstention
Navalny’s abstention strategy has been criticised by some as it would give Putin an even greater numerical superiority but it is in fact what the Russian president dreads the most.
Whether they are for Putin or not, will voters still vote when there is nothing at stake in the election? “I am not going to vote because I believe that we don’t have a choice and I don’t want to legitimise this election. Besides it’s not an election,” said Elya a 27-year-old journalist in Saint-Petersburg.
These elections are mainly intended to legitimise his regime, so Putin has to ensure a high participation level and therefore wants to attract voters by any means.
According to an article published by Radio France International on the 1 March, in some regions selfie competitions will be organised at polling stations with prizes including iPhones, iPads and cars.
Youth in limbo
Faced with the country’s economic problems, Putin now knows that reforming the economy, making Russian industry more competitive and boosting investments, is urgent.
“Vladimir Putin is aware that the ‘Crimea effect’ can’t be repeated and that the legitimacy of the government and the survival of the regime depend on his capacity to satisfy the basic material needs of the population,” said the ECFR in its new report: The arrival of post-Putin Russia.
Young voters turning 18 this year have known only Putin. His economic achievements since coming to power in 2000 are therefore becoming increasingly obsolete with a large part of the population.
Russians put great stead in stability, and in their eyes Vladimir Putin is the one who re-established economic and social order. “Russian society went through extremely difficult times in the 1990s. People over 40 remember the situation all too well and have seen a considerable improvement under Putin,” Ivan explained.
”I don’t like Putin because I have lived in Sweden and Germany and I compare Russian to the countries of northern and western Europe. So I think that things could be better. Whereas my parents compare the current situation in Russia with Russia in 1993 when tanks were attacking the White House [Russia’s main government building] in Moscow, or in 1998 when the country went bankrupt. So for them things could be worse,” he added.
Claude Blanchemaison hopes that the EU will take advantage of this fourth term to assume its responsibilities and facilitate the flow of young people, researchers, and artists.
“It is not by imposing a blockade on Russia that we will facilitate change. One day there will be a successor to Putin, at which point there will be a need for a new generation of trained personnel,” he added.