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.

AP Photo/RIA novosti/Yana Lapikova/Pool
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets supporters in Moscow Dec. 27. Putin, who is running to reclaim the presidency, says he wants the elections in March to be absolutely transparent.

Russia’s leaders are staring at the horns of a dilemma as their previously passive citizens protest the fraudulent conduct of the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.

While these protests and the electoral fraud that produced them are serious concerns, the real threat to the regime of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is that he will lose the presidential elections on March 4, or that those elections will be followed by an even larger wave of protest.

Thankfully, there is an easy fix to this problem that the Kremlin appears only now to be considering: Allow free elections in March.

Russian presidents prefer to win presidential elections in the first round of voting, with more than 50 percent of the vote. However, Russia has a two-round voting system for president. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the first round, the top two candidates run off in a second round a few weeks later.

Going to a second round has long been seen as too risky by Russian presidents for a number of reasons. First, it reveals their true (and potentially embarrassingly low) level of support. Second, the chances of losing a runoff are higher than for a multi-candidate first round in which the opposition vote is split.

Until now, most analysts have assumed that Russian authorities would falsify the results of the coming presidential elections in much the same way that they did for the Duma, or parliament: by disallowing legitimate opposition candidates from running, banning the opposition from TV, using a wide variety of dirty tricks to discredit opposition figures, and in the final analysis stuffing ballot boxes to insure, for instance, that more than 99 percent of Chechens vote for the government candidate.

Yet, in a surprise concession to protesters, Prime Minister Putin announced this week that the March elections will be held in a transparent fashion and proposed installing video cameras in hundreds of thousands of polling stations.

While displaying a troubling lack of understanding of the differences between the techniques of conducting free elections and police surveillance, his statement represented a step in the right direction. It showed that his government has realized that it will be nearly impossible to falsify the results of the presidential election now that a majority of Russian voters knows what is going on and a determined and well-heeled minority is ready to oppose it.

The level of falsification required for Putin to win in the first round in March – and the outcry against it – would be immense. A credible late-November poll from Moscow’s Levada Center showed that only 31 percent of Russian voters would choose Putin for president if the vote were held immediately. That number has most likely continued to drop. At this point, free elections would not only fulfill the demands of the protesters, but also serve the interests of the regime itself.

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.

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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