Even some autocrats eventually lose their hold on power, and that seems to be the case for Vladimir Putin, whose election rigging and other shenanigans are proving to be less effective than they once were. Putin, recall, was elected as President of Russia back in 2000. In 2008, after serving two terms, the Russian constitution barred him from running for a third consecutive term, so Putin found himself a stooge, got him elected President and got himself named Prime Minister, which — all of a sudden — had all the power in Russia. In 2012, however, Putin ran as President again, and — all of a sudden — all that power was placed back into the Presidency, and with it, Putin extended the Presidential term to six years. In 2018, Putin handily won another term, although there were widespread reports of election fraud, while Putin also imprisoned his political enemies, squashed political protests, and had journalists murdered. Nevertheless, he somehow won 76 percent of the vote, although his approval rating was only around 40 percent.
Lately, however, pro-Democracy opposition parties have begun to feel a small sense of hope. Heading into the September Moscow city council elections, there were two months of political protests as opposition parties mounted their campaigns. Putin, however, was quick to quash the protests and imprison his political enemies. Indeed, all the major opposition leaders in Moscow were removed from the ballot and/or put in prison, so how could they possibly win?
They couldn’t, but that didn’t mean that Putin couldn’t lose. Apparently, in Moscow, they put placeholder candidates on the ballot against candidates from the United Russia party (Putin’s party). The placeholder candidates are there only to give voters the illusion of choice because formidable candidates are blocked from running or imprisoned. And the thing is, in some instances, the formidable opposition candidates were heavily favored to win city council seats (one poll, for example, showed an opposition candidate was favored by 33 percent to 5 percent over the United Russia candidate).
So, what did the Russian voters who could not vote for pro-democracy opposition candidates do? They voted for the placeholder candidates, of course!
Let me illustrate by way of example. Here in Portland, Maine, there are usually two recognizable candidates in city council elections — the “establishment” progressive candidate and the anti-establishment progressive candidate (it’s a very progressive city). But there’s another guy who runs every time for city council — he’s homeless, and he drinks a lot, although he’s a spectacularly nice guy (he once knocked on my door and asked if he could do some yard work, for which he’d be paid by the hour. I acquiesced, and at the end of each hour, he’d asked for his hourly wage, disappear for 20 minutes, come back smelling like a distillery and work for another hour. He did great work, actually.).
Basically in this metaphor, in the Moscow city council elections, faced with a choice between Putin’s United Russia party candidate and a placeholder candidate, more voters chose the drunk homeless guy than Putin’s guy. For instance, there was a placeholder candidate with the same name as an imprisoned opposition candidate who won handily, despite the fact that he didn’t spend a single minute campaigning nor did he have any interest in being a city councilor. By the end of Sunday’s elections, in fact, placeholder candidates had won 586,000 votes to 578,000 votes for candidates in Putin’s party (although, Putin’s party still took 25 of the 45 seats, because I assume there’s some gerrymandering going on, as well).
Ultimately, this is a great omen for Russians and not such a great omen for Putin. Change in Russia is slow and tends to start happening at the lower levels, but the victory of placeholder candidates is going to inspire a lot of hope in opposition parties. Putin, no doubt, will endeavor to snuff out that hope, likely with violence and arrests. But one man can hold back a stampede for only so long.