Vladimir Putin was re-elected Russian President in the election held in mid-March.
He secured 77% of the vote on a 68% turnout. Sections of the Russian left called for a boycott of the election and were right to do so.
Under the Russian constitution a President cannot serve more than two consecutive terms of office. On standing down in 2008 Putin served for four years as Prime Minister to President Dmitry Medvedev. In reality, he continued to be the decisive source of power in the country.
In 2011 the term of office of a Russian President was extended from four years to six years. The following year Putin was again elected President amidst multiple allegations of ballot-rigging. Now, after the most recent elections, his rule has been extended by another six years.
By the time his latest term of office expires, Putin will have been in power as President (or indirectly in power as the “eminence grise” during the period of his premiership) for almost exactly a quarter of a century.
Putin has presided over the imposition of increasingly authoritarian forms of rule in Russia, a clampdown on political dissent, a neutering of the media, a succession of military adventures, and rising levels of economic and social inequalities.
Russian regional government has been scrapped and replaced by federal districts run by appointees personally chosen by Putin.
The powers of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament have been curtailed, and the election of regional governors replaced by personal appointment by Putin.
Media empires run by anti-Putin oligarchs have been taken over and programmes critical of Putin taken off the air. Internet usage and bloggers are now subject to strict controls.
Critical journalists (Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova), human rights lawyers (Stanislav Markelov) and political opponents (Sergei Yushenkov and Boris Nemtsov) have been murdered.
After his re-election in 2012 Putin responded to a wave of popular protest with new legislation which imposed heavy fines on anyone who organised or participated in an unauthorised demonstration. This was ramped up again in 2014, introducing a penalty of up to five years of forced labour or prison.
Putin has also ordered and presided over a succession of overt and covert military interventions by Russian military forces: Chechnya (1999/2000), Georgia (2008), the Crimea (2014), Ukraine (2014) and Syria (2015). State spending on the military forces has increased correspondingly.
Economically and socially, Russia is now the most unequal of the world’s biggest economies: 10% of the population own 87% of the country’s wealth. (In the USA 10% own 76% of the wealth.) 46% of the value of all personal bank deposits are held by just 1% of the population.
For a time, the Russian economy boomed under Putin. But the boom years were ended by the collapse in the price of oil and the imposition of sanctions after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.
Around 16% of the population now lives below the poverty line. A survey conducted last year found that the income of 41% of Russians was so low that they struggled to be able to afford food and clothing.
As an election sop, the Duma passed legislation to increase the Russian equivalent of the National Minimum Wage (NMW).
Despite all such factors, Putin’s election victory was a formality. In fact, it was a formality precisely because of such factors.
Putin’s control of the media, the imprisonment or murder of high-profile opponents, the top-down control of the Russian system of government, and the success (or apparent success, as presented by the media) of his military adventures have provoked apathy and demoralisation among broad layers of the population.
Along with the expenditure of energy simply to survive, this apathy and demoralisation have sapped the potential for militant opposition.
Putin has also benefited from appearing to have restored stability to the Russian economy, rebuilt Russia as an international power, and reasserted the importance of ‘traditional’ (i.e. conservative) Russian values, in alliance with the Orthodox Church.
The main would-be challenger to Putin – Alexei Navalny, a kind of Russian anti-corruption populist who describes himself as “a nationalist democrat” – was barred from standing.
“Election campaigning” did not involve political debate. It was one prolonged “get out the vote” campaign.
Putin wanted 70/70: at least 70% of the vote on a turnout of at least 70%. Voters were variously offered the chance to participate in raffles.
The role of the other election candidates was not to seriously challenge Putin but, to lend an appearance of legitimacy to the elections and to help increase turnout.
Grudinin, the Communist Party candidate. was a millionaire and former member of United Russia, the country’s ruling party.
Zhirinovsky stood, again, as the demagogic candidate of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Other candidates consulted the Kremlin before standing, most notably Ksenia Sobchak, millionaire daughter of the former pro-Putin mayor of St Petersburg. She discussed standing as a candidate with Putin himself.
Even in the most liberal of bourgeois democracies there are limitations on the extent to which elections function as a genuine exercise in democracy. But the Russian presidential election was in a different league. The purpose of the election was not to provide a mechanism to determine who would be elected as Russia’s president.
As the Russian Socialist Movement put it, in explaining its decision to call for a boycott:
“The March presidential elections, like previous ones, will take place under the control of the Kremlin... The purpose of this imitation of an election is to preserve the regime of the personal power of Vladimir Putin, behind whom stands the bloc of oligarchs, the military, and the bosses of state corporations.
“A fourth term of office for Putin promises the Russian people nothing apart from a further increase in poverty, social disintegration and state violence.
“For real democracy – not fake elections! Power to the millions, not the millionaires!”