As Russia’s March 4th Presidential Election nears, Vladimir Putin is pulling out all the stops.
Stinging from his party’s embarrassing showing in last November’s parliamentary elections and beleaguered by growing numbers of increasingly broadly-based protesters (some of whom are holding Moscow trapped in a motorised loop of dissent), he is grasping at every straw he can: raising military spending, bribing Russia’s neighbours, trying to get the youth on his side and even maintaining a half-hearted truce with the last remaining liberal radio station.
Will any of this work? Probably. Despite his loss of popularity, particularly among liberals, youths and progressives, a respected poll suggests Putin will still get nearly 60% of the vote and thus avoid a humiliating runoff. Not as great as his Soviet-style 71% landslide in 2004, but good enough.
A self-confessed brawler and former street-thug, Putin will use all the dirty tricks in the book, but that’s not why he will win. He will win because, for all the opposition to his government, he still has no opponent.
In this way, the upcoming election resembles the US presidential race of 2004. Mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country was sick of Bush. The intelligentsia and the youth had abandoned him completely. But very few elections are ever won through votes ‘against’, and while opposition to Bush was raging across the land, American voters did not see a worthy opponent in John Kerry.
Of course, if Putin had not done such a great job of marginalising the opposition and constricting political space, maybe this would not have been the case.
Nevertheless, whether “sanctioned” (like Communist Party leader Zyuganov, projected to get no more than 15%) “banned” (like liberal leader Yavlinsky who was barred from running but had never previously got as much as 10% in the days when he had been allowed), or anticipated (like the popular anti-corruption crusader Navalny, whose internet celebrity greatly exaggerates his clout with the general population), the brutal fact is that there is still not a single person in the entire country capable of mounting a credible personal or ideological challenge to the status quo.
That, not Putin, is the real barrier to Russian democracy.