Putin wins, surprising no one, but voter turnout rose

Voters play a game outside a polling place in central Moscow on Sunday, March 18. Games, free phones and other techniques are used to draw voters to the polls. Putin won the election with more than three-quarters of the vote.

Charles Maynes/PRI

The result came, of course, as no surprise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin overwhelmed his opponents in his country’s elections, taking in just more than three-quarters of the vote to extend his power through 2024. His closest challenger, Communist millionaire Pavel Grudinin, came in a distant second with 11 percent of cast ballots. A ultra-nationalist came in third. Pro-Western candidates barely cleared the 1 percent mark.

Tamara Kruglova, a pensioner who voted in central Moscow, argued support for the Russian leader was simply the natural order of things.

“Who did I vote for? Of course for Putin!” she said. “Because he’s the only one who doesn’t want war. He’s a good and peaceful man. And for the next six years it means we’ll have stability. The people trust him.”
Inflated turnout

The election was never about whether Putin would win, but rather, how the race would be won.

With the opposition leader Alexey Navalny barred from participating and calling for a nationwide boycott, the question was over turnout. Did the Russian president still enjoy a broad mandate after 18 years in power?

The answer appears to be a resounding yes. More than half of Russia’s 110 million registered voters cast ballots for Putin — more than in the last presidential election six years ago.

Yet behind the impressive showing were obvious machinations aimed at achieving the result. Election day had been moved to fall on the fourth anniversary of Russia’s “reunification” with Crimea. The annexation of the territory prompted Western sanctions — and a surge in Putin’s approval ratings at home.

Ballot stuffing, “carousel voting” of groups of state workers — a type of election-rigging where buses of voters are transported from one polling place to another — and other forms of state use of “administrative resources” appeared to pad the vote. Russia’s Central Elections Commission nullified results — or was forced to, as some argued — in polling centers where obvious violations occurred.

The pursuit of higher turnout prompted a host of other creative ways to pull in voters. In some regions, the latest models of iPhones and cars were offered to voters posing for the “best election selfie.” Other polling stations offered free medical exams. Free or discounted food was also on offer — a Soviet-era election tactic that prompted no shortage of derision online.

Golos, an independent Russian election monitoring organization, registered more than 1,500 violations and declared the election neither free nor fair. International observers from the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a preliminary report saying the election was “overly controlled” and “lacked genuine competition.”