It’s Putin’s turn to strug­gle with en­thu­si­asm gap

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View colum­nist. He was the found­ing ed­i­tor of the Rus­sian busi­ness daily Ve­do­mosti and founded the opin­ion web­site Slon.ru. Leonid Bershidsky

Ac­cord­ing to the Daily Beast's lat­est scoop, "a Rus­sian op­er­a­tive" used Face­book to or­ga­nize an anti-Mus­lim event in Twin Falls, Idaho, that at­tracted a grand to­tal of four peo­ple. Inside Rus­sia, the Krem­lin ap­pears to have a sim­i­lar in­abil­ity to stoke crowds.

Last Sun­day, Rus­sia held the last string of lo­cal elec­tions be­fore the 2018 pres­i­den­tial poll. Few peo­ple showed up.

In just three re­gions out of the 16 that elected gover­nors, the turnout was higher than 40 per­cent, a level of ap­a­thy to which Rus­sia is get­ting ac­cus­tomed: At last year's par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, the turnout hit a record low at 47.8 per­cent. The hundreds of lower-level elec­tions — on the mu­nic­i­pal or district level, roughly equiv­a­lent to U.S. city coun­cil and county polls — were even more glar­ingly ig­nored.

In one ru­ral Siberian mu­nic­i­pal­ity, where only 41 of 464 reg­is­tered vot­ers cast bal­lots, a lo­cal coun­cil mem­ber was elected af­ter re­ceiv­ing just one vote — pre­sum­ably his own.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin voted in the Ga­garin­sky mu­nic­i­pal district in south­west­ern Moscow. He was one of just 8,944 peo­ple to cast valid bal­lots, out of 45,034 reg­is­tered vot­ers. Even this 19.8 per­cent turnout — about the av­er­age for U.S. lo­cal elec­tions, known for voter pas­siv­ity — was high for Moscow, a politi­cized city with lots of con­cerned ci­ti­zens. The av­er­age turnout was no higher than 15 per­cent.

Marginally more peo­ple showed up in Ga­garin­sky be­cause of a cam­paign waged by Dmitry Gud­kov, a for­mer par­lia­ment mem­ber and Putin op­po­nent who raised funds to push an­tiPutin can­di­dates into the cap­i­tal's mu­nic­i­pal coun­cils. His ef­forts re­sulted in what would have been a re­sound­ing slap in Putin's face had there been more voter in­ter­est:

All 12 of the coun­cil mem­bers elected in the district are from the op­po­si­tion Yabloko party.

Gud­kov, who helped get op­po­si­tion can­di­dates into 63 dis­tricts with fund­ing and step-by-step in­struc­tions, cel­e­brated on Face­book: "We have shown what can be done with the right elec­toral or­ga­ni­za­tion de­spite the au­thor­i­ties' re­sis­tance and the lack of faith from a large part of so­ci­ety." But the achieve­ment is hol­low. As usual, Putin op­po­nents failed to present a united front even in th­ese elec­tions, where the out­come has no na­tion­wide im­por­tance: Alexei Navalny, the best­known Putin op­po­nent, didn't back Gud­kov's ef­fort be­cause the for­mer leg­is­la­tor's team in­cluded Navalny's for­mer cam­paign man­ager, with whom he now has a bit­ter feud. That must have contributed to the an­tiPutin vot­ers' ap­a­thy.

The tiny turnout was prob­a­bly even tinier, given the signs of rig­ging. Reuters doc­u­mented a bla­tant episode in Vladikavkaz in South­ern Rus­sia. In Moscow, Mayor Sw­ergei Sobyanin was forced to sack the elec­toral com­mis­sion in a district af­ter its chair­per­son was caught on video dis­cussing vote-rig­ging. De­spite the ex­plo­sive con­tent, the video has been viewed fewer than 10,000 times on YouTube.

If Putin de­cides to seek an­other term as pres­i­dent, as a re­cent Krem­lin leak sug­gested, he will face a dis­mal elec­toral land­scape of his own mak­ing. Rus­sia used to have an ex­tremely ac­tive elec­torate. Even in the 2000s, when the re­sults were al­ready largely pre­de­ter­mined in pro-Krem­lin can­di­dates' fa­vor, turnout num­bers were closer to the high Euro­pean lev­els than to the low U.S. ones. The coun­try had laws set­ting a turnout thresh­old for elec­tion va­lid­ity — 20 per­cent for lo­cal elec­tions, 25 per­cent for par­lia­men­tary ones, and 50 per­cent for pres­i­den­tial ones — un­til 2006. Ini­tially, that had lit­tle ef­fect on voter ac­tiv­ity. Now it's hit­ting a nadir.

That's a prob­lem for the regime.

Through­out his rule, Putin claimed demo­cratic le­git­i­macy. De­spite re­ports of wide­spread rig­ging, it was al­ways clear that lots of Rus­sians voted for him and his back­ers. That was a far stronger ex­pres­sion of sup­port for Putin's poli­cies than the polls: Cau­tious Rus­sians are of­ten in­sin­cere with poll­sters. It was also the ba­sis for Rus­sia's im­i­ta­tive sys­tem of in­sti­tu­tions: While it was not quite demo­cratic, it en­joyed ob­vi­ous pop­u­lar sup­port.

But this time around, while Putin's pre­ferred can­di­dates won all the gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions and most of the lo­cal ones — the man who won with just one vote is from United Rus­sia, too — even rel­a­tive le­git­i­macy is elu­sive.

What if peo­ple don't turn out to re-en­throne Putin next year, ei­ther? It's easy to imag­ine: No one but Navalny, who likely won't be al­lowed to run, has put their hand up yet, so un­less the Krem­lin can some­how re­cruit cred­i­ble ri­vals for Putin, the elec­tion will be en­tirely de­void of in­trigue.

With­out a solid turnout, Putin's all-but-cer­tain cer­tain vic­tory will mean a for­mal tran­si­tion from a rel­a­tively pop­u­lar dic­ta­tor­ship to one based on sheer sup­pres­sion. Putin may al­ready sus­pect that he runs a coun­try of cyn­ics who tol­er­ate him be­cause they have no choice or be­cause they profit from it. A low turnout could make this of­fi­cial.

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