Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last month that he will seek re-election when the country goes to the polls in March, 2018. Putin served as President from 2000- 2008, before employing his notorious Castling manoeuvre to remain effectively in control of Russia as Prime Minister. The Russian constitution, drafted in the aftermath of the Cold War, placed a limit of two consecutive terms on Presidents. Putin allowed his deputy, Dimitri Medvedev, to become President whilst Putin remained as Prime Minister, although such was his level of control that this had little material impact on Kremlin policy. In 2012, eligible once more, Putin returned to the highest office, and Medvedev slotted back in as Prime Minister. A change to the Russian constitution followed, extending the term length to six years, and removing the limit on consecutive elections. Putin said in an interview prior to his formal announcement that he could remain President ‘for life’.
The incumbent, who has dominated Russian politics since the turn of the century, is almost certain to win. His closest rival, Alexei Navalny, has been banned from entering the contest, and the liberal and communist candidates are unlikely to pose much of a threat. The opposition has been hamstrung by its inability to coordinate, leading to a range of anti- Putin candidates which have split the vote. Ksenia Sobchak, known as Russia’s Paris Hilton, has announced that she will stand in 2018, which is likely to further split the opposition vote.
Several key dissenting voices, including billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and chess legend Gary Kasparov, have been exiled from Russia for fear of repercussions if they return. Putin’s dominance has two major strands.
Firstly, he has control over the state apparatus, and uses it to great effect. Most major television and news companies in Russia are either state owned, funded, or experience high levels of pressure from the Putin regime. The newspapers and anchors follow the government line, and what little debate does occur happens within a narrow, pre-approved framework. Though journalists do not always face open violence, repression of the free press is overt and difficult to combat. In the 2017 Press Freedom Index, Russia was ranked 148th in the world. Putin’s control of the press makes it hard to see a route to victory for outside contenders. In addition to this, the Putin government has been accused of widespread voter fraud and election fixing. Elections between 2007 and 2011 saw 11 million fraudulent votes cast for the ruling United Russia party, according to the Central Election Commission. This was highly significant, because those extra voters gave the United Russia party enough deputies in the Duma, the Russian Parliament, to alter the Country’s constitution without any supporting votes from other parties, leading to the removal of the term limit and it’s time extension. There seems little reason to doubt that this illegal activity will continue in March’s election, and if it does, it is difficult to see Putin failing to secure a victory.
Secondly, polling suggests that Putin is highly popular within Russia. An aggressive, ‘Russia First’ foreign policy has secured his perception as a strong and capable leader. After the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, most data indicates that stability and strength are key to retaining support from the public.
The election will fall on the anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea, which cemented Putin’s popularity, despite international condemnation.
Despite severe economic difficulties, partially brought about by the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West in response to the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2016, there seems little sign that the public is about to lose faith with Putin en masse, and recent polls show his popularity at over 80 percent.
Russia will likely face another six years under Putin’s leadership, as he heads into this contest as the heavy favourite. As Russia’s role in the world comes under increased scrutiny, with the continued presidency of Donald Trump, the West will watch this election closely.