Voter apathy and boycotts dampen Putin's chances for a landslide victory

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_RUS130621aa001.jpegMOSCOW--It’s election season in Russia and there are two dangers for Vladimir Putin as he seeks to extend his long rule for another six years. Neither of them, however, are a rival candidate.

The first is apathy. While there is almost no doubt that Mr. Putin will triumph at the March 18 presidential elections, the Kremlin is desperate for a high turnout to boost the Russian strongman’s claim to represent the vast majority of Russians.

After almost two decades years in power, Mr. Putin enjoys total command over state media, while the Kremlin controls the all-important election committee, which counts the votes and decides who gets on the ballot. Indeed, Mr. Putin is so certain of victory that he has not campaigned, or even published an election program. The predictability of the election result has resulted in widespread indifference toward next month’s vote.

“Why should I bother voting? Everything has been decided in advance. My vote won’t change anything,” Daria Orlova, a 22-year-old university student, told The Washington Times.

Candidates likely to be registered for the election include Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party nominee, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist, and Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal journalist and former model whose father was close to Mr. Putin. None of them are expected to receive more than 10 percent of the vote.

The second threat to Mr. Putin’s legitimacy is a boycott of the vote that has been called for by Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic, to protest what he says are rigged elections. Mr. Navalny, a 41-year-old anti-corruption lawyer with a massive social media following, is barred from the elections over a fraud conviction that he says was trumped up to stop him challenging Mr. Putin. He spent much of last year on the campaign trail in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to force his way onto the ballot.

“What they are offering us can’t be called elections. Only Putin and the candidates he has personally selected, those who don’t represent even the smallest threat to him, are taking part. To go to the polling station now is to vote for lies and corruption,” Mr. Navalny said in a recent online address to his supporters.

All of which poses a problem for government officials, who are reported by Russian media to have been ordered by the Kremlin to ensure Mr. Putin wins the election with at least 70 percent of the vote with a 70 percent turnout.

That could be a tall order.

An opinion poll released in November by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Centre pollster indicated that just 28 percent of Russians definitely intend to cast their vote at the March elections, while another 30 percent said they would “probably” do so. It said around 60 percent of those Russians who are likely to vote plan to back Mr. Putin. Some analysts estimates say the overall turnout could be as low as 45 percent.

In contrast, VTsIOM, the state-backed pollster, said this week that over 80 percent of Russians were likely to cast their ballots, with more than two-thirds of them planning to vote for Mr. Putin. Opposition figures are skeptical about VTsIOM’s objectivity, however: Last year, the pollster’s head, Valery Fyodorov, described those Russians who criticize Mr. Putin as “scum.”

 “The Kremlin is planning to base the legitimacy of Putin’s new six-year term on a high turnout,” said Leonid Volkov, Mr. Navalny's chief of staff. “The reality is that due to a crackdown on the political field, no one find the elections interesting. Of course, we don’t believe the VTsIOM poll.”

One of the most original of the Kremlin’s initiatives to get the vote out is a “Photo at the Polls” competition, which will see iPhones and iPads awarded for the best ballot box selfie. The unusual move is part of a plan by the presidential administration to create a “holiday-like atmosphere” on voting day, Russia’s RBC media outlet reported, citing a leaked Kremlin document. Famous sportspeople, comedians, actors and bloggers will help promote the competition.

Other polling station attractions are likely to include family games such as guess-the-word, soccer skills tests, and non-binding referendums on issues of interest to schoolchildren and their parents. Government employees are also reported to be coming under pressure to vote.

Critics say the schemes to attract voters echo the tactics used by the Soviet authorities to ensure a high turnout at single-party elections, when usually scarce supplies of meat and vegetables were put on sale at polling stations. The elections are also being advertised on everything from billboards to milk cartons.

Outrage over vote-rigging at parliamentary elections sparked massive protests in Moscow in 2011 that continued up until Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012. The authorities, wary of a repeat of that unrest, have made it much harder for independent vote monitors to gain access to polling stations during March’s elections.

“It’s going to be tougher to monitor the vote this time, but we’ll give it our best,” said Mr. Volkov.

Two of Navalny’s supporters were handed brief jail sentences last week on charges of urging people to attend unsanctioned opposition rallies in support of a vote boycott. Ruslan Shaveddinov and Kira Yarmysh had travelled abroad to carry out a live online broadcast of nationwide protests on Feb. 28 and were detained by police when they returned to Moscow.

On Monday, Mr. Navalny’s problems mounted when he was summoned for questioning by investigators over allegations that he hit a police officer during the Feb. 28 protest in Moscow.

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