Kremlin’s receipe for a “modernised” campaign

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

This is not a secret: Vladimir Putin wants to be reelected, with a large margin and a high turnover. But he also wants to show he is in tune with 2018 Russia.

Of course, a Russian electoral campaign does not have to be analysed according to Western criteria. This one started only 2 months before the election date. There have been no great rallies or heated public debates. At the same time, one cannot say that the 2018 campaign is just a carbon copy of previous ones. Some elements of it provide for an opening into the political situation of Russia today.

First, the 2008 presidential elections are no longer being held in the shadow of parliamentary ones. They are totally separate operations, reducing the risk that the contestation of one could generate resentment about the second.

Secondly, Vladimir Putin is competing as an independent candidate instead of being the candidate of the current  ‘party of power’. Of course, United Russia is backing his candidacy, but he has reinforced the image of a man above party – which continues to be seen as a sign of political independence in former Soviet states. Just to show this, he had to follow the procedure of any other independent candidate,  by, first of all,  gathering 300.000 signatures.

Third, the electoral law has been modified to meet some criticisms. Mostly by reforming the Central Electoral Commission, replacing the disgraced previous head of the Commission by former ombudsman Ella Panfilova, and reducing the number of signatures required for independent candidates. This is still a long way from providing the ‘fair’ elections wanted by the opposition, but it reflects a concern for increasing the fairness.

Fourth, the performance of the president’s campaign has been ‘modernised’. Gone are the grandmothers screening lists of signatures in shabby schools, refectories or cultural clubs. The activists are ‘volunteers’, all good student types, exuding enthusiasm and patriotism. They sit in front of computers, ‘meeting the voters’ and go ecstatic when ‘their’ candidate appears in their headquarters.

Five, the campaign has focused on social problems. When Putin talks of economic reforms he puts the emphasis on the benefits they will provide to ordinary citizens. Obviously, the Kremlin took the full stock of the social discontent, especially concerning future jobs for youth, pensions and health care, education and, generally speaking, a fairer society. Hence the numerous meetings with workers, students, high-tech laboratories, and what could have been described in Soviet literature as ‘avant-garde’ social classes.

Sixth, the social focus is accompanied with a great attention to the provinces. Putin has been crisscrossing Russia, visiting up to 3 even 4 cities and rural settlements in a single week. Once again, he wants to campaign as an all-Russian candidate and not the candidate of an urban élite or a clan.

All of which shows, among other things, that:

  • The trauma of the big demonstrations of the winter 2011-2012 is still alive in the Kremlin.
  • Putin has to meet two contradictory wishes: not to risk any real rivalry for the presidency, while presenting his re-election as the result of a fair and contested campaign. More openness – but still no reconciliation with the concept of pluralism.
  • The president is electorally playing with the Western sanctions, celebrating the vitality of a country capable of developing substitute goods which reduce dependency of foreign products, restore confidence in national goods and unleash people’s creativity.

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