Sunday is a big day in Russia as voters head to the polls in an election that is almost certainly a foregone conclusion.
So without further ado, let’s ask the big questions.
Who’s Going To Win?
Why Is He Such A Sure Bet?
On the face of it, Putin, 65, enjoys huge public support in Russia with around 69% of respondents in a March 9 survey saying they would vote for him.
However, the poll *was* conducted by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM), so the public were unlikely to say anything else, given that political dissent is often quashed by the authorities.
The election will likely allow Putin to consolidate and increase his authority in Russia for another six years.
How Come He’s So Popular?
It’s less a case of being popular and more that Putin is seen as the only real option for most Russians, a situation cleverly engineered by the Kremlin.
Russia’s only independent polling company, the Levada Centre, found in December that 58% of people were not even going to vote.
However, this didn’t exactly reflect well on Putin so the Centre was barred from reporting during the election campaign and was forced to register as a “foreign agent”, because it had received some funding from abroad.
There are thought to be around 110 million people eligible to vote in Russia, out of a total of 142 million.
If no candidate gains a majority in the first round of voting, a second round will be held later.
Hasn’t Putin Been In Power A Bit Long?
Indeed he has - since 2000 in fact, although this has been the result of some rather dubious interpretations of the Russian constitution, which technically limits a president to two consecutive four-year terms in power.
Putin overcame this in 2008 by backing Dmitry Medvedev for president. Medvedev then dutifully appointed Putin as his prime minister - historically a far less significant role, although this changed during his tenure.
When Medvedev’s four years were up, Putin was reelected and changed the constitution from four year terms to six.
So Who’s Going To Lose?
Putin’s main rival is Alexei Navalny. Well, he was, until he was banned from running by the Kremlin because of a corruption conviction he says was fabricated by, you guessed it, the Kremlin.
Why Is Putin So Scared Of Navalny?
Navalny is a charismatic anti-corruption blogger turned opposition politician who last year helped spark a wave of protests across Russia after accusing prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption.
Although Russia is technically a democracy, it has more more than a whiff of authoritarianism about it. As such, anti-government popular action does pose a threat to Putin, but is massively downplayed by the state-run press to try to keep people power at bay.
In March of last year, tens of thousands of people took to the streets yet the Kremlin called the demonstrations a “a provocation and a lie” and state-run media largely ignored it.
Navalny has called for a boycott of the election which could pose a problem for Putin who needs to not only win, but also to be seen to have won convincingly.
How Will He Do That?
Well, a snippet from a Reuters report on the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections gives a flavour of what could happen:
In the Bashkortostan region’s capital Ufa, in the foothills of the Urals, Reuters reporters counted 799 voters casting ballots at polling station number 284. When officials tallied the vote later in the day, they said the turnout was 1,689.
At polling station 591 in the Mordovia regional capital of Saransk, about 650 km south-east of Moscow, reporters counted 1,172 voters but officials recorded a turnout of 1,756.
A Reuters reporter obtained a temporary registration to vote at that station, and cast a ballot for a party other than the pro-Putin United Russia. During the count, officials recorded that not a single vote had been cast for that party.
This electoral manipulation probably wasn’t at a scale to swing the vote completely, but that’s not the point: as noted above, it’s all about being seen to win convincingly.
Who Else Is Going To Lose?
There are seven other candidates, most of whom don’t need mentioning as even Russians don’t know who they are, but there are a couple worth knowing about.
Pavel Grudinin is essentially the embodiment of all that is cliched about Russia: he is both a Communist and millionaire.
Ksenia Sobchak, dubbed “Russia’s Paris Hilton”, is a former reality TV star who makes no secret of her close ties to Putin, and is basically running to give the election a veneer of credibility.
So What’s The Point In Even Having An Election?
Putin needs the legitimacy that a democratic election affords a leader both domestically and internationally.
As the majority is Kremlin-controlled, he has benefited from glowing coverage on mainstream media, and has cast himself as the only person who can defend Russia’s national interests in a hostile world.
This has become even starker in light of the ongoing fallout from the Salisbury spy poisoning.
His first two wins in the previous decade were an absolute doddle - the Russian economy was booming and the living standards of average Russians improved accordingly.
Now though, it’s not so easy - the global recession and international sanctions have hit Russia hard and the population grows ever more restless, as manifested in last year’s protests.
On top of this, Russia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, something that enriches Putin and his friends at the expense of the average citizen.
But if he loses an election Putin and those around him who rely on his power to maintain their wealth, will lose it. So without any major economic successes to trumpet, Putin has largely stayed quiet during the election campaign.
In fact, he doesn’t even have a manifesto and has refused to participate in televised debates, instead letting his opponents embarrass themselves live on air, as you can see in this clip. [Spoiler: a glass is thrown]
This may all seem a bit depressing but there are those in Russia who believe the country is ready for a change.
Accountant Natalia Dementieva, from Moscow, said she was casting a vote for TV personality Sobchak because she supported more freedoms.
″[Sobchak] speaks the truth, openly. She doesn’t lie. She raises issues which are taboo under our government.”
“The next generation to rule this country were born between 1982 and 1987. There’s a lot of them and they don’t remember what it was like in the Soviet Union. So they’re less afraid.”
Sobchak is expected to garner 2% of the vote, according to the March 9 poll.
From the Communist Party, wealthy farm boss Pavel Grudinin, 57, is set for a stronger showing, at 7%.
For Alexei Gruk, a mechanic from St Petersburg, voting for the Communist Party sends the signal that things need to change at home, but he wants Russia’s foreign policy to stay the same.
“To hell with the sanctions,” Gruk said. “So what if they don’t bring foreign stuff here anymore? As if that means we have to give in. I don’t care.”
Nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran lawmaker, is expected to garner 5% of votes, according to latest polls, while liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky should receive 1%.