Putin cares about Russia’s presidential election. You should too

Voters in Russia will elect a president Sunday – and we know President Vladimir Putin will win another term in office.

With the winner known in advance, critics have dismissed the election as a mere attempt to demonstrate Putin’s political power. But that is precisely the point.

Non-democratic elections like Russia’s are important not for choosing a ruler, but for providing a rare public signal that potential rivals can use to gauge the president’s power. Those who might challenge Putin’s rule will surely be scrutinizing the election results for signs of weakness – even as they know he will win.

Autocrats do lose elections, but rarely. Since 1946, 51 autocratic parties have lost rigged elections. Far more often, rulers in non-democracies like Russia lose power via challengers from within the elite.

More than 60 percent of autocrats have lost power via various forms of coups by formerly loyal elites since 1946. Autocratic rulers also face challenges from the mass public via street protests.

Few topics enrage the Kremlin more than the possibility of a so-called “Color Revolution” in Russia, like the revolts that overthrew undemocratic governments in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia from 2003 through 2005.

Elections under autocracies always involve a degree of fraud and coercion. But if voters are willing to go to the polls and vote for the incumbent in large numbers without a great deal of coercion or electoral fraud, potential challengers among the elite and mass public will think twice about challenging the leader.

Large and more or less “honest” margins of victory send a strong signal to potential rivals that their efforts to depose the ruler will be futile.

However, if vote totals are seen as wholly fraudulent, or turnout is obtained via coercion, even an impressive victory may signal to potential challengers among the elite and the mass public that the incumbent is actually not very popular.

Elections under autocracies like Russia face an inherent dilemma. Fraudulent elections make it easier for the autocrat to win, but higher levels of fraud also make it harder for the autocrat to convince potential rivals and opposition leaders that he is actually popular. After all, if he is so beloved, then why does he need so much fraud?

In Sunday’s election, the Kremlin is seeking a so-called 70/70 solution in which President Putin receives 70 percent of the vote with 70 percent voter turnout. Higher figures may be seen as not credible, while lower figures may signal vulnerability.

A 70 percent vote share for Putin is within sight, because opposition voters will likely split their ballots among the seven other fringe candidates. The most outspoken opposition politician in Russia – the anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny – was barred from running for the presidency on a legal technicality that many see as politically motivated.

Hitting the 70 percent turnout target can be complicated, because regional officials have been known to inflate their vote totals for Putin to compete for his affection. Uncoordinated ballot stuffing by regional governors can create a herding effect of “too many” votes for Putin.

On the other hand, the level of apathy among the public toward this election is high and the regime may struggle to gain 70 percent turnout without significant ballot box stuffing. Voter turnout in elections for the Russian Parliament in September 2016 was just 48 percent. Turnout in Russia’s municipal elections in September last year was much lower than usual. In Moscow’s municipal elections last fall, only 12 percent of voters bothered to vote.

Even though President Putin has high approval ratings, faces an opposition in disarray and has no serious political rivals, the Kremlin has undertaken a massive mobilization campaign to support his re-election. From cuddly grandmas rapping in a get-out-the-vote ad, to massive pressure on employers to turn out their workers to vote, to scheduling the election on the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin is pulling out all the stops for the incumbent.

Putin is in no immediate danger, but given Russia’s stagnant economy, a good bit of Putin-fatigue after 18 years in power, and increasing restrictions on political activity, the Kremlin is clearly uneasy about Sunday’s election. And it should be.

Many have hinted that Putin’s next six-year term will be his last and that he will step down in keeping with the constitutional ban on holding office for three consecutive terms. But Putin’s ability to impose his will on policy, to choose a successor, or even to stay in power for the full six-year term may be shaped by his ability to demonstrate his power in an election that he is sure to win.

Rather than dismissing these elections as trivial because we know Putin will come out on top, we should be paying attention to how he does it.