The notion that Russian elections are systemically rigged to keep the “party of power” in, well, power is so prevalent and accepted in journalistic, political, and academic discourse in the West that it has little need of supporting documentation. Taking the 2007 Duma elections as an example, they were described as “not fair” by OSCE, “managed” by the head of the PACE observer team, and (possibly) “neither free nor fair” by the British Foreign Office. A German government spokesperson flatly stated that “Russia is not a democracy.”
The storm of condemnation in the media, unrestrained by any need to respect even a bare minimum of diplomatic protocol, was all the more shrill (e.g., The Economist claimed there was “[no] doubt that the poll was rigged”). As for established academia, suffice to say that a standard cornerstone of recent Kremlinology was an article titled “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model: How Putin’s Crackdown Holds Russia Back”, published immediately after that election. Its author, Michael McFaul, was recently appointed to be US Ambassador to Russia.
All in all fairly damning, no? But statistics speak louder than rhetoric. As I show in this post, the results of opinion polls have historically closely tracked actual Russian election results. This is a powerful argument against elections fraud. If the Kremlin does falsify elections, it is uniquely incompetent at it. Let’s take a closer look at the last four elections.
Russian presidential election, March 2008
OSCE refused to monitor this election in advance, ostensibly because of “severe restrictions” on its observers (the Russian Foreign Ministry denied it). The Economist said the “figures were massaged.”
Now let’s take a look at the opinion polls. According to Levada, Medvedev’s 71% mandate was exactly the same as the percentage of Russians who voted and later recalled casting a ballot for him. Zyuganov, of the Communists, got slightly less than those post-elections poll results indicated; Zhirinovsky, of the nationalist Liberal Democrats, got slightly more. Turnout was exactly the same: 69.7% according to the Central Electoral Commission, 71% according to Levada (with a further 2% who didn’t remember).
Furthermore, as of 8-11 February a huge majority of 80% intended to vote for Medvedev, which is significantly higher than the 71.3% who actually did so. Zhirinovsky’s rating of 9% translated into a straightforward 9.5% in the elections, as did the liberal Bogdanov’s <1% into 1.3%. Zyuganov’s 18.0% result was almost double that of his 11% rating. What kind of fraud is it when the “establishment” candidate gets fewer votes in real life than in opinion polls while his competitors get more?
Russian legislative election, December 2007
As mentioned above, many people – at least outside Russia – were unhappy with the Duma elections of 2007 (or maybe with their results, as no “real” opposition parties got in; “real” in their case being defined as anti-Putin, liberal, and not Communist). But look at the graph below, where the results of Levada voting intentions polls are graphed from May 2004 to the eve of the elections in November 2007 (the data points for December 2007 represent the actual results). Does the December point look wildly out of place, as one might expect if the elections were widely falsified?
[Click to enlarge. NOTES: Rodina Aug-Dec04 adds Glazyev & Rogozin factions; Rodina from Sept06 is with Fair Russia; Apr06 is for combined bloc of SPS+Yabloko so each one’s rating is divided in half; Nov07 is average of two polls.]
Thought not. As of November 2007, taking the average of two polls, voting intentions were 67% for United Russia, 13% for the Communists, 7% for Liberal Democrats, and 5% for (social-democratic) Fair Russia. The actual results, respectively, were 64.3%, 11.6%, 8.1%, and 7.8%. The “true” opposition, i.e. the Russian liberals, also got results that closely tallied with their popularity (in Russia, that is, not Washington DC think-tanks). Yabloko got 1.6% (voting intentions: 2%) and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) got 1.0% (voting intentions: 1%); both were beaten out by the Agrarian Party. Sour losers don’t “dissidents” make.
Russian presidential election, March 2004
In early December 2003, 52% of Russians were ready to vote for Putin; this rose to 61% by mid-month. The two other main candidates, Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky, experienced tanking approval ratings: the former to 7%, the latter to 5% by mid-December. In the event, neither of them decided to run. By January, some 71% of Russians said they would vote for Putin. This compared with 3% for Glazyev (of the Rodina party, which would later evolve into Fair Russia), 1% for Kharitonov (of the Communist Party, in Zyuganov’s stead) and 1% for the liberal Khakamada. Everybody else scored 0%, with 8% saying they wouldn’t vote and 11% undecided. Putin had dominant support from the constituencies of all parties, with even 49% of the Communists and 67% of (liberal) Yabloko and SPS members saying they’d vote for him.
According to the final elections poll in February 2004, of Russians who intended to vote some 69.3% of Russians said they would vote for Putin (real result: 71.3%); 5.4% for Kharitonov (real result: 13.7%); 3.5% for Glazyev (real result: 4.1%); and 2.2% for Khakamada (real result: 3.8%). As in 2008, the “establishment” candidate actually lost votes relative to his competitors from what the opinion polls indicated!
Russian legislative election, December 2003
This election was (supposedly) “fundamentally distorted” and “failed in meeting many OSCE and international standards.” (A reminder of the political context: a growing rift in Russia – West relations over the Iraq War and Khodorkovsky’s arrest).
[Click to enlarge. NOTES: Oct03 is average of 2 polls].
As with the 2007 Duma elections, the data point at the end of the series represents the actual election results. United Russia got 37.6%, the Communists got 12.6%, the Liberal Democrats got 11.5%, Rodina got 9.0%, (left-liberal) Yabloko got 4.3%, and (right-liberal) Union of Right Forces (SPS) got 4.0%. A month previously voting intentions had been, respectively, 29%, 23%, 8%, 3%, 6%, and 6%.
The jump in support for United Russia does seem a bit suspicious, but may be explained by a popularity boost in the wake of Khodorkovsky’s arrest (at least for a time, this appeared to void the Communist trope that United Russia was a slave of the oligarchs). The fast rise of social-democratic Rodina, with its nationalist bent, may also explain why the KPRF plummeted. Nonetheless, of all the elections in the 2000’s, this one seems to be the least in line with what might have been expected based on the opinion polls: the only parties to see more votes than the last opinion polls had indicated – United Russia, Fair Russia, and Rodina – were all pro-Kremlin.
Russian Elections In 2000 And Earlier
Russia’s elections in the 1990’s probably weren’t any cleaner than under Putin. In particular, the 1996 election – featuring a tense runoff between Yeltsin and Zyuganov – was marred by campaign funding scandals and one-sided television coverage (though the consensus is that Yeltsin would have won in any case). Allegations of similar misuse of administrative resources would become ubiquitous only under Putin. The eXile has a good account of this mendacity in How do you spell Hypocrisy? O-S-C-E in its trademark shrill and outraged style.
Obviously, you wouldn’t learn much about this by listening to the Western MSM. In the 1990’s, Yeltsin was the man who stood against Communism’s return, and thus deserved their unconditional support. Western criticism only began in earnest from around 2003, when there appeared a growing rift between Russia and the West; and the accusations of electoral fraud reached a crescendo in 2007-8, by which time the so-called “New Cold War” was in full swing (despite that the results of those elections very closely mirrored opinion polls, unlike in 2003).
Opinion Polls Speak Louder Than Western Rhetoric
The inescapable conclusion is that election results in Russia, by and large, mirror public opinion; in all elections but the 2003 Duma elections, the “establishment” party or candidate had garnered fewer votes than was indicated by polls of Russians’ voting intentions a few weeks beforehand.
There are several possibilities for why that is the case. First, we could accept that the Russian electoral process is essentially free and honest (otherwise, far bigger gaps between the results of opinion polls and the ruling party’s election results would have been expected). Second, we can assume that it isn’t free and honest, but that United Russia’s fraud is counterbalanced by fraud on behalf of other parties (this isn’t as absurd as it sounds, as the Communists have also been accused of using “administrative resources” to skew votes in areas under their control). Third, we may posit that the opinion polling organizations themselves are compromised by the Kremlin, churning out results that don’t reflect Russian public opinion.
The third possibility can be dismissed pretty much out of hand. I will remind readers that Lev Gudkov, the current director of the independent Levada Center, writes stuff like this: “Putinism is a system of decentralized use of the institutional instruments of coercion… hijacked by the powers that be for the fulfillment of their private, clan-group interests.” Doesn’t exactly sound like the biggest fan of the regime, right?
Use Occam’s Razor. Russia’s elections might be far from Scandinavian standards, and in a few regions – Ingushetia and Chechnya foremost among them – they are, in fact, blatantly fixed. But they are the exception, not the rule – which is that Russian elections are largely free.
(This is not to say that they are fair, because of unequal TV access to the candidates, restrictions such as the 7% threshold for entry into the Duma, etc.; to varying degrees, all democracies suffer from these or similar factors. To what extent Russia’s elections are unfair relative to other democracies – e.g. the gerrymandered US; first-past-the-post Britain; the thirty or so other democracies without elections of governors, etc – should be the real object of discussion. But engaging in rhetoric about the neo-Soviet Putin dictatorship is far more fun, supports Western foreign policy objectives, and most importantly, sells more copies.)
Russian legislative election, December 2011
Current trends in opinion polls reflect just how much the priorities of the media are out of sync with public opinion. In recent months, the liberal commentariat has seized on Navalny’s characterization of United Russia as a “party of thieves and swindlers,” and hopeful editorials such as Miriam Elder’s Russians uniting against United Russia are blossoming. A lot of ink is spent on the emergence of the People’s Freedom Party (a more compact name for Russia Without Corruption And Lawlessness, a recent coalition of 1990’s-vintage liberals) and Right Cause (basically, a re-branded Union of Right Forces (SPS); the oligarch Prokhorov, who supports Medvedev’s modernization agenda, is expected to play a prominent part in it).
But back in the real world, attitudes remain distinctly unchanged. As you can see in the graph below, United Russia is now slightly less popular than it was a year ago, but it is still far more attractive to voters than the other parties by a huge margin (or even itself in the 2003 elections).
[Click to enlarge.]
As for the new kids on the block, only 2% of Russians intend to vote for People’s Freedom, and Right Cause is so unknown that it is lumped into the “Other” category which has a total of 2% voting intentions (perhaps not that surprising when you consider that Prokhorov once advocated a 60-hour workweek). Nonetheless, I’m sure that the almost certain failure of these two liberal parties, both darlings of the Western media, to achieve any success whatsoever will be blamed on the machinations of the Kremlin.
My prediction? Nothing comes out of Right Cause or People’s Freedom (or Putin’s Popular Front for that matter). Communists get 10-15%, and the Liberal Democrats and Fair Russia just make the 7% cut. United Russia ekes out more than 50%, but less than the 2/3 constitutional majority. Various journalists, democracy watchdogs, etc. will have a field day, but criticism will be more muted than in 2007 because of the new political atmosphere of “Reset.”
You can read my thoughts on the 2012 Presidential elections in my post On The Necessity Of Subjecting Kremlinologists (And Social Scientists) To Market Discipline.
PS. In the graphs, I incorrectly labelled the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia as LPDR. It should, of course, be L DPR.