During the Soviet era, the common joke in the west was that since the Soviet Union only had one candidate for General Secretary (a.k.a. President) of the country, we could call the election with only a few ballots counted. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, though, many in the West remain perplexed by two factors in the Russian Federation that are very different than in the West: the stunning popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the high voter turnout rate in Russia. Surely, the West says, this is something that is influenced upon the people of Russia by the Kremlin apparatchik. It just cannot be real, goes the line from many in the West.
Well… it is real.
This is just an example of people trying to talk about something they know nothing about. In the present day experience of life in Russia, I see absolutely nothing coercive about the election campaign at all, and I live here, so I would see it if there were anything to report.
Presently TASS reports that the expected turnout for March 18th’s presidential elections is about 71% of the registered voters. The news agency also reports that the Kremlin is in no way involved in trying to manipulate or push election turnout on anyone.
Practical experience here upholds this very strongly. Moscow alone is an enormous city, with a population that is not even accurately known by city officials. The official population most recently was listed at 11.92 million in 2012, but present estimates of the city’s population put it as high as 17 million people, or greater than 10 percent of the population of the entire country. How does one force so many people to do anything? If this were a police state, maybe it would be possible. But the real state of life in Moscow is actually very low-key when it comes to police security.
Political campaign activity is all but nonexistent by western media standards. There have been some lively televised arguments in the style similar to American political discourse (complete with candidates throwing water at each other), and so there is some drama.
President Putin used the bully pulpit extremely well in his State of the Nation speech on March 1st. Around the city are posted many billboards, many featuring only the logos of the parties who have candidates in the election. United Russia and LPDR, but mostly the advertising is non-intrusive, and the election campaigns themselves are very limited in time, officially in progress only for a few months, this year starting in mid to late December 2017.
So, unlike the United States, the candidates are not in a constant struggle for re-election campaigning and showmanship, and the Russian people are not terribly fired up about politics either. Many Russians I have spoken to express a sort of cynicism about the matter of the Presidential election, where Putin is seen as the only candidate who can actually get things done. However, there is much concern about the fact that no viable candidate has shown up in many years. Far from an emotional choice, the choice for one’s vote in Russia appears to be largely pragmatic. Vladimir Putin is seen by many people in many ways, some very unfavorably. But when it comes to the practical matter of who needs to lead the country, then the decision tends to focus on him.
Perhaps one of the reasons the Russians turn out in such great numbers is this pragmatic view of their country. They see improvements that have come about, but they also know much more is needed, and this is a concern that is far closer to home than we see in the US, where so much is already running well. Russia has major infrastructure problems, it has major education issues and economic problems, and the people see their country positively but as a work in progress that needs solid attention.
One other interesting factor about Russian elections is that they take place on Sundays, the Presidential election being no exception. There is a very practical reason for this – it is not a regular workday, so it makes it easier for people to come out and vote. This factor alone may account for a large turnout because it is made convenient. By contrast the American election days are weekdays at most levels, and certainly at the national one, and the day is not a holiday, so whoever wants to vote has to deal with work and other usual matters as on any other day.
Russia does it differently than the US. That much is true. But the American media are feeding out a bunch of propaganda to say anything that implies or states that the mechanism of politics here is the same as it was under Communism. It isn’t. It is just different.
And, different is just fine.