As some of you might know, Russia sort of elected a new old president a week ago. After taking a 4 years break as prime minister Putin now becomes Russian president for the third time. I’ve been following the Russian-language reactions to the election which I find quite interesting. While I like most readers of this blog have the luxury of living in a democracy, sometimes I need a reminder about what actually constitutes a democracy. Hint: elections in regular intervals are not sufficient.
When discussing whether an election was fair and democratic most people tend to focus on vote counting. This election shows however that distortions of election results start much earlier than that, e.g. when the candidates are registered — two candidates were excluded for bureaucratic reasons. Even more importantly, the equal opportunity rule was severely violated here. There is little to none independent press or television in Russia, so the news were as usually following Putin closely and uncritically. The opposition candidates on the other hand got far less attention and were presented in an unfavorable light.
The rhetoric used by Putin and his staff in the election campaign is worth mentioning. He did his best to badmouth the opposition, insinuate criminal and anti-Russian motives. Most remarkably however, he revived the old foreign intervention stories: the opposition was directly or indirectly accused of serving US interests. In best Soviet tradition no proof of US involvement was given nor any reason why the US would be interested in a leadership change in Russia. But it seems to have worked: there is apparently still a large population in Russia that buys such primitive stories about external sources of internal problems.
Given the massive pre-election propaganda, nobody was seriously doubting Putin’s victory. So while an unprecedented number of people enlisted as election monitors it was doubtful that they would find anything — with the preparations already done Putin could simply lean back and let people enjoy “fair” elections. Yet the web today is full of well-documented reports describing a wide range of falsifications. Often the issue can even be easily seen in the official results, e.g. the anomalously high absentee ballot counts for some of the polling stations with similarly anomalously high Putin vote counts. While such irregularities cannot be entirely prevented of course, the important factor is that in many cases the same falsification approach was taken for a large area which quite certainly means that it has been dictated from above (e.g. while election monitors reported relatively few manipulations of vote count protocols this issue is strikingly prevalent in St. Petersburg). The issues are obvious enough that heads should rolls — in a democratic country. This won’t happen in Russia of course as the aftermath of the legislative election in December has shown. The courts will cover up and reject the complains with bogus reasoning, independent courts don’t exist in Russia.
One question appears quite frequently in the discussions: Why were these falsifications necessary? Putin would have won either way given his unfair advantage over all other candidates. One theory is that Putin absolutely needed to demonstrate his superiority over the opposition. The other is that he needed to know which governors were loyal to him and the governors went out of their way to provide the best vote counts. Personally, I feel that both theories get it wrong. For example, they don’t explain why Putin suggested putting up web cams on all election stations (quite a remarkable feat given the limited time). One can consider these cameras security theater of course as they recorded extremely few manipulations, avoiding two cameras with a fixed viewing angle wasn’t hard. But they did make manipulations harder and they did make it simpler for election monitors to prove that the videos they recorded are real.
It appears to me that Putin doesn’t really controls the governors, their relationship being rather one of mutual dependency. Putin’s power is based on the loyalty of the governors he appointed (Putin disposed of governor elections in 2005), he rewards them by overlooking their corruption involvement. The governors on the other hand depend on Putin because a new president might stop their illegal income. In fact, the idea of Putin losing the election must be horrifying for them — enough to falsify election results just to be on the safe side, no matter what Putin himself thinks about that. And they have nothing to be afraid of, Putin wouldn’t undermine his power by moving against them, at most he would sacrifice a pawn — somebody on the lower levels would take the blame.
What does this all mean for the democracy we are living in? In my opinion, having Germany in mind:
- An independent press (bloggers included) that will critically inspect everything that the government is doing is extremely important. This sounds trivial but especially the “critically inspect” part comes short occasionally or ends up in hysteria beyond any reason.
- Ideally, the mass media should recognize populist statements as such and treat them accordingly, these shouldn’t be a tool that mainstream parties can afford using. Well, wishful thinking but at least the situation in Germany is nowhere near being comparable to Russia.
- One really gets to appreciate that Germany doesn’t concentrate all power in a single person, that’s a historical lesson well-learned. The German chancellor has far less power than the Russian president — in addition to having to deal with independent governments in federal states.
- Independent courts are not optional, they are rather an essential part of a working democracy.