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.


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