Political Vacuum Bomb
Russian Voters Sign a Blank Check
Russian democracy continued its down-grade in spite of all the achievements in democratic procedures. The election campaign for president of the Russian Federation in February-March 2004 exceeded most expectations in its surrealism. A few candidates who volunteered to accompany the president in this venture basically campaigned for Putin with their own funds and their platforms copied each other; while the incumbent candidate had fired the prime-minister to announce that he needed a new government for the new turn. Few grown-up people had any illusions that if anything was part of a platform it could become reality only if Putin wanted it to be.
In the meantime the incumbent candidate refused to use campaign funds, to be nominated by parliamentary majority, and also refused to take part in TV-debates. Months before the campaign started and after it did, the incumbent candidate was in the news acting as president, not as a candidate and was covered massively by media.
In this situation all political competition was meaningless and participation of opposition in this circus sideshow – a waste of time and resources. Formal observation of procedures became the matter of great concern for Kremlin administration and the Central Election Commission – no one should be able to challenge the legitimacy of Putin’s re-election. It was not easy due to lack of training of pollworkers and redundant loyalty of federal and local officials.
The turnout was the primary concern, with legal requirements of 50% plus one voter for elections to be valid. This was overcome with competition for highest turnout among different regions. There was a potential danger of opposition candidates standing down, leaving Putin the only candidate and thus invalidating elections. This was balanced by introducing a few dummy candidates who had no problems with funding and didn’t care about their own political career. They actually built campaigning on full support of incumbent candidate and traveled all over Russia with this message.
One more mission was to ensure the incumbent wins in the first round with more than 50% of votes.
All of this was happening on the background of political vacuum created after Duma elections in December 2003 and became a test for election system and an exam for the federal and local administration. Both election commission and local executive had to show what they can do to accomplish these missions. As a result of spontaneous action the sought after outcome was achieved:
• Media covered the entire campaign by staging activity and telling the nation about candidates they will never hear again;
• Campaign coverage was handily weaved into news reports about president Putin occupying about 80% of airtime;
• Turnout approached the desired 100% in some places - federal authorities had to react after news reported that in some places citizens were denied admission to hospitals unless they had absentee voting certificates, or students not allowed to pass exams until they register to vote;
• The CEC masterfully sidestepped all ambiguous situations when it could react to restrict media abuse by Putin’s followers;
• Putin campaign exceeded all rational limits due to spontaneous move of all businessmen, local public servants and regular citizens – vast majority of them suddenly decided to move all their eggs to Putin’s basket before it gets too late.
It was quite normal for a business to support two or more opposing candidates or parties back in 1990’s, but it is not now. Contributing to a campaign by opposing candidate or party (transparency requirements are insufficient but allow to trace donations for those who are interested) is viewed now as an act of treason or at least as a lack of loyalty. Loyalty suddenly became very important and some business people had to explain why they had supported real opposition candidates/parties and not dummies.
Free but unfair elections? Why most Russian citizens can’t identify Putin’s platform or know anything about his plans for the next turn and still gave their votes to him is a mystery to solve. While Putin’s victory is undisputed – he appears to have the support of a majority – the procedure is consistently criticized by opposition and foreign observers, including OSCE.
In anemic society and under lame democracy in Russia there are no signs of checks and balances to prevent us from sliding into authoritarian rule. Today, by Putin. Tomorrow, by who? Russian president is no exception from the rule, he represents the average. His slips may or may not be accidental but they speak out. As president Putin put it himself in a meeting with his supporters: “One of the missions for any leader, especially the highest position leader – is to suggest to the society [the man] who he deems deserves to be in this position in the future. If the people agree and accept him, it will be a continuation of what is being done today”. Such is the prevailing perception of participatory democracy in Russia. It leaves little or no room for civic organizations, political parties or local self-governments. Now Putin has a blank check signed by a majority who doesn’t want to take care of themselves.