Putin ‘victory’ rests on narrow definition of fraud

Today the Financial Times printed my letter to the editor.

Putin ‘victory’ rests on narrow definition of fraud

Sir, In his article “Trouble in store even as Putin tastes sweet victory” (March 6), Charles Clover argues: “Few, however, dispute the fact that [Vladimir] Putin would have won the election even if there had been no fraud.” This, of course, assumes a much too narrow conception of “fraud” as pertaining only to the technically proficient casting and counting of votes.

Electoral fraud, however, must be recognised as a much broader concept. Obstructing the development of political parties and competitive candidates is as fraudulent as stuffing ballot boxes. Buying votes with state resources is as fraudulent as stealing them outright during the tally. Dominating the media or stacking the electoral commission with friends is as fraudulent as violating the secrecy of the vote.

Thus, under a narrow conception of fraud it is perhaps – perhaps – true that the actual cheating that occurred on election day – the tabulation problems in about 30 per cent of polling stations observed by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the carousel voters, the ballot stuffing and so on – might not have been necessary to bring Mr Putin above 50 per cent.

But even this claim is questionable. With domestic observer groups conducting parallel tallies assessing Mr Putin’s vote at 49.6 per cent, as Mr Clover himself points out, it is entirely possible, indeed likely, that if the multiple voting and other tricks were accounted for, Mr Putin would not even gain 50 per cent of the vote in a technically clean election day exercise. Let’s not forget that his approval ratings have been well below 50 per cent for some time.

Of course, had the official tally come in under 50 per cent, under the existing circumstances, he would most likely have won the run-off. However, he would have done so only under a narrow, but misplaced, definition of fraud. As Mr Clover’s own article points out, the broader Russian election process was by no means either free or fair. Had Mr Putin allowed political competition to develop freely over the past four years, viable candidates would have developed and registered. Had he not controlled the media, or used state resources for political advantage, his popularity would have been dismal. Had the election not been fraudulent, it is indeed likely that Mr Putin would have lost.

The preliminary OSCE election observer report as much as says so. Although it unfortunately falls short of stating outright that the election did not comply with OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards, it points to all the glaring problems and calls the election “clearly skewed in favour of one candidate”. Leaders of democratic countries need to do the same. Mr Putin does not deserve the recognition of a “victory” based on a narrow conception of fraud. This only makes a mockery of political competition as the basis of democracy.


Putin and Russia’s Electoral Hoops

Check out my guest blog at the Council on Foreign Relations

Workers attach a pre-election poster featuring Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the southern city of Krasnodar, November 24, 2011 (Eduard Korniyenko/Courtesy Reuters).

International election observation can be an effective way to expose electoral manipulation and encourage democratic reform. But observers’ reports can be used for good as well as ill, and determined governments can also simply ignore them.Judith Kelley, an associate professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, writes here about Vladimir Putin’s handling of election monitors in advance of Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. Kelley is the author of Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why it Often Failsforthcoming this month from Princeton University Press, and she is also featured in this week’sEconomist.

Oh bother! It’s outrageous how many hoops a Russian strongman must jump through these days just to steal an election. It used to be enough to indoctrinate voters into performing their civic duty to vote for the longevity of the regime. Today, alas, ambitious incumbents must give at least some semblance of propriety to their elections. Instead of (or in addition to) raw intimidation, then, they curtail political competitions to reduce opposition, dominate media to ensure favorable coverage, and stack the electoral commission to protect the interests of the (head of) state.  In an age of worldwide communication, international election observers must also be handled. But with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Since Russia’s controversial parliamentary elections in November, Putin has made sure to buttress the appearance of correctness. After pictures of polling station officials showed them fudging the counts, Putin called for webcams in every stationRussian Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov has asked, indeed demanded, thatelection observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the post-Soviet club dominated by Russia, give an “unbiased assessment” of the media coverage of the election campaign.

Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has sent its contingent of election observers. Putin and Russia have a longstanding and contentious relationship with OSCE observer missions. Putin has tried to disempower the OSCE’s election observation mandate for years and has criticized observers for being nothing but western agents. During the 2007-08 election cycle he obstructed their participation by making travel and logistics so difficult that they decided not to come. But that didn’t look so good to the international community, so this time they were invited.

Perhaps that was not a bad idea. The OSCE did criticize the parliamentary elections last November, but not as forthrightly as they could have. Although they often declare directly whether an election complied with OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections, the final report did not do this. Instead it called the elections “technically well-administered” but noted that they were “marked by the convergence of the state and the governing party” and “narrowed political competition,” and that they “did not provide the necessary conditions for fair electoral competition.” Not exactly praise, but fairly polite criticism. And the interim report about the presidential elections was even gentler.

But with protests fermenting since the fall election, Putin is weary. Thus, Churov has ensured that friendly international observers will also report on the elections. These include the CIS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization–observer groups created for just such a purpose. Putin can count on them to praise the elections. This will allow him to fool at least some of the people some of the time. For the rest, there is always sheer old-fashioned power.