With days to go before Russia’s presidential election, Vladimir Putin has barely campaigned for a victory that’s all but assured.
Even in Crimea, the peninsula he seized to the joy of many Russians, Putin spent only a few minutes at a rally this week to thank supporters who waited hours to see him.
Amid widespread public apathy about the outcome and discontent over stagnating living standards, the Kremlin’s only challenge is to ensure that turnout for Sunday’s vote is sufficiently high to give Putin’s record fourth term a stamp of legitimacy. Regional officials are resorting to inducements ranging from free food to prize contests to lure voters to the polls as Putin extends his rule to 2024. The election is “an imitation,” said Grigory Yavlinsky, one of seven candidates running against Putin. “It’s like a referendum, as Putin’s main goal is to stay in power forever.”
Eighteen years after he was first elected president, Putin is already the Kremlin’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He’ll face a host of challenges in his new six-year term, as spiraling confrontation with the U.K. over an alleged nerve-agent attack adds to tensions with the U.S. and Europe over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Russia’s economic recovery is sputtering after the worst recession this century. In what’s likely his last term, Putin, 65, must also groom a trustworthy successor.
His motley collection of challengers includes Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin, a farm boss who’s defended Stalin’s bloody purges; ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who’s been trounced in past contests; and Boris Titov, who attracted ridicule for running against Putin while serving as the Kremlin’s business ombudsman.
There’s also former reality-TV star Ksenia Sobchak, who’s run a campaign critical of Putin while laboring under accusations from opposition leader Alexey Navalny that the Kremlin encouraged her candidacy to add sparkle to the lackluster contest. Navalny was barred from running.
“It’s a very strange campaign because Putin sees the election as a harmful thing that distracts him from his real task” of running the country, said Tatiana Stanovaya, an independent political analyst. “He’s not interested in what voters care about.”
Struggling with a cold for much of the campaign, Putin attended few election events and, as in previous contests, dodged televised debates with his opponents. Meanwhile, state broadcasters lavished coverage on presidential visits to Russia’s regions.
With two days to go before the vote, the Kremlin on Friday announced Putin had already ordered his staff to draft policy decrees covering the next term.
Meanwhile, his campaign rivals were mostly reduced to shouting at one another in debates that often descended into farce. In one, Zhirinovsky repeatedly insulted Sobchak, prompting her to throw a glass of water over him. She left the stage in tears at the end of Wednesday’s final debate.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, unwittingly summed up the president’s election predicament, boasting in January that he’s “the absolute leader of the political Olympus, and no one can seriously compete with him.”
The Kremlin also shifted Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address from December to March 1, where he hammered home his image among voters as an uncompromising defender of the nation against the West by unveiling a series of new “invincible” nuclear weapons.
That overshadowed his economic message, in which he acknowledged that 20 million Russians live in poverty and pledged to reduce their number by half while propelling the country into the world’s top five economies by the middle of the next decade.
Russia is sliding down the world ranking and is forecast to fall to 17th from 11th among the largest economies within 15 years as it’s overtaken by South Korea, Spain and Turkey, among others, according to the London-based Centre for Economics & Business Research.
After being hit in 2014 by falling oil prices and Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s weak economic recovery is faltering as stagnation takes hold despite a rebound in crude prices last year. The Bank of Russia has warned that the economy may grow by only about 2 percent per year without major changes, around half the current global average.
In his address, Putin called for a “decisive breakthrough” to improve living standards, though he offered only vague pledges to raise spending on roads, health care and pensions while avoiding details on “hard choices” needed for long-overdue reforms. These are among voters’ top concerns along with unemployment and low incomes, according to the state-run VTsIOM polling company.
The priority for officials is to get out the vote. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin ally, argued on his website that Kremlin critics will exploit a low turnout to cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy, adding: “If we trust Putin and we consider him our president, let’s turn up and support him.”
Still, authorities may resort to so-called “administrative resources” to pressure students, state employees and factory workers into voting to boost turnout and support for Putin, according to Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the vote-monitoring group Golos. Complaints of ballot-rigging triggered the biggest street protests of the Putin era in 2011 and before the 2012 presidential election.
“They’ve already fixed the results,” said Yavlinsky, the opposition candidate who co-founded the liberal Yabloko Party. “I know perfectly well in what system I live.”