The Russian presidential election on March 18 currently has seven candidates in the running. But not a single one of them has a chance to unseat Vladimir Putin. After almost two decades in power, the ex-KGB officer has complete control over state media. His government controls the election committee, which counts the votes and decides who makes it onto the ballot. As of this week Putin is polling at 69 percent, while his nearest nominal rival, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, is at just 7 percent.
Putin has never been a fan of campaigning. But this year, he declined to take part in any presidential debates, failed to publish any kind of platform for his policy priorities, and refused to create any new campaign ads—the ones running have been based on archival footage.
Putin probably feels no need to make an effort because he knows what the outcome will be. But insiders believe the Kremlin is counting on high voter turnout as the basis of Putin’s legitimacy for another 6 year term. A lackluster participation at polls will scuttle those plans, but the Russian people don’t seem to be keen to help in that regard. Recent polls show only 28% of Russians even plan to cast a ballot with some analysts predicting a nationwide turnout of 45%—down from 62% in 2012 and 70% in 2008.
To ensure their plan is a success, the Kremlin is getting creative. Advertising has been ramped up to an unprecedented scale, placing reminders to vote on milk cartons, cash machines and billboards throughout Russia. Russia’s RBC media outlet posted leaked documents showing the administration is planning to offer iPhones and iPads for the best ballot box selfies, as part of a bid to create a “holiday-like atmosphere” at polling stations. Famous athletes, comedians and actors will help promote the “Photo at the Polls” competition. There are also plans for election day sporting events.
Not all of the get out the vote tactics are so pleasant. Officials are threatening university students with expulsion from dormitories until they register to vote telling them it is important they fulfill their obligations to the motherland. “Supporters” were forced to attend pro-Putin rallies in Moscow, post “happy” photos of the event and were not allowed to leave until after the President had completed his appearance. Some were even reportedly paid to attend.
In China, the specter of Mao is looming as term limits are abolished. In Russia, are these the echos of the Soviet era control that we hear? The 20th century called and it wants its foreign policy back.
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