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Opinion

Truly free elections in Russia could solve Putin's problem with protesters

If Putin allowed a truly free vote in March elections, he would likely not win a majority and be forced into a runoff. But he would almost certainly win that second round, fair and square – and fairness is what Russian protesters demand.

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The reason is that, while dissatisfied with Putin, Russians do not have another viable candidate for president. In a legitimate two-round election, Putin would most likely win in the second round. He may gain only 20 or 25 percent of the vote in the first round, when many voters would cast their opposition ballots. But faced with a runoff against Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, or another challenger, Putin would most likely win.

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Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev may have trouble convincing skeptics that the March elections will be conducted fairly.  Yet free elections can be organized – without surveillance cameras – by inviting international election observers and opposition groups to monitor the polls, reducing the number of signatures required to register presidential candidates, and allowing opponents access to free media time and official debates.

Then Putin, with his attempt to project a tough-guy image, will have a chance to prove that he is man enough to face the rough and tumble of democratic politics. He will have to appeal to his base in the first round, while showing that he can guide Russia to a more democratic future in the second, perhaps by promising free and fair Duma elections within a year. 

Despite appearances, these protests are not about Putin – yet. They are about the creation of an ever-more authoritarian regime that imposes its will ever more arrogantly over some 140 million Russians who do not want their country to become a crotchety oil dictatorship like Saudi Arabia.

Putin still has time to defuse the situation and lead Russia into a new era. Even if he loses in 2012, by respecting the will of the people, he will have set the stage for a possible dramatic electoral comeback in 2018.

Mitchell A. Orenstein is S. Richard Hirsch associate professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.

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