With the forthcoming elections in Russia generating debate over the nature of democracy in the country and the role of the protest movement, Professor Joshua Tucker gives his thoughts as to the poll's context.
Q: Russia is holding a presidential election on March 4, 2012. Will this be like most presidential elections in democracies, in that it will function as a vote that will be held to determine who will be Russia's next president?
A: No. First of all, the winner of the election is not going to be determined by the vote on March 4. The winner of the election was determined in September, when the only real uncertainty about who would win the election was resolved. That was when the current president of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, decided to step aside so that the previous president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, could run for president in 2012. The only possible competitive election in Russia would have been between Medvedev and Putin, but this was never going to happen: only one of these candidates was going to run, and in September we learned it would be Putin.
Q: So if Putin still wants to be president, why did he step aside during the 2008 presidential election and let Medvedev take the role?
A: That's a good question, and in some ways we still do not really know the answer. However, the technical reason is that the Russian constitution prohibits any individual from being president for more than two consecutive terms, but not for more than two terms in total. Putin was president from 2000-2008 for two four-year terms, so, according to the constitution, he had to step down in 2008. Putin had enough political power at the time that he likely could have changed the constitution, but for whatever reason he chose not to do so. Instead, he selected his loyal (at the time) ally, Dmitri Medvedev, to run in his place.
Q: So at that point did Putin gracefully exit politics the way US presidents do after they have served their two terms? Or did he try to become more of a global political player along the lines of Tony Blair?
A: Actually, he did neither of these things. Instead, he became the prime minister of Russia - the day-to-day head of the government - which technically meant that Medvedev was now his boss, and legally Medvedev could have fired Putin at any time. The previous two presidents (Putin and Boris Yeltsin) had indeed fired their prime ministers, and Yeltsin in particular changed prime ministers fairly regularly during certain periods. Medvedev, however, never removed Putin, and he has stayed in office ever since.
They went on to rule as what became known as "the tandem", giving way to years of speculation about the stability of the arrangement, and of the extent to which Medvedev was an independent actor or just a puppet standing in for Putin. In recent years this gave way to speculation about which one would run for president in 2012, leading up to September's annoucement that Medvedev would step aside and let Putin stand in March.
Q: So how do you know Putin will win the election? Does he face any competition?
A: Actually, there are a number of opposition candidates, including some perennial presidential candidates who have been running since the mid 1990s (Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the ironically named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), and an independent candidate, New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. But none of these candidates are polling far out of the single digits, and Putin will undoubtedly win the election.
Q: He'll win because he is genuinely more popular?
A: Well, it is hard to argue that he is not genuinely more popular than the other candidates. However, he also has a number of other very significant advantages. First and foremost, the Kremlin exercises a very strong degree of control over what appears on television, and this will be used extensively to benefit Putin during the election (and may very well account for why he is more popular than the other candidates to start with). The Kremlin will also have its formidable "administrative resources" at its disposal. Moreover, there have been serious allegations of electoral fraud in Russia in recent elections (see here and here for examples).
Q: So then it sounds like there is no uncertainty here, and we already know all we need to know about this election?
A: Not at all. Actually, there are a number of important questions to be resolved. The actual opposition movement in Russia - the people protesting in Moscow in recent months - have made a very smart move in terms of the presidential election. Rather than hitch the protests to any one opposition candidate that would undoubtedly lose (and would likely divide the protesters), many instead support a vote for any candidate other than Putin. So despite the weaknesses of all of Putin's opponents, this still presents the opposition movement with the opportunity to show its strength simply by denying Putin votes.
Here's one way this becomes important. Russia employs a two-round presidential election. This means that if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round of the election, the top two candidates go on to compete in a second separate election. In Putin's first two presidential elections, he was elected in the first round without a need for a second, as was Medvedev later. Should Putin need a second round to win the election, this will be interpreted as a sign that he will be entering his third term as president in a weaker position than his previous two terms.
Second, while Putin will undoubtedly win the national election, he still needs to rule from Moscow. So it will be important to watch how well Putin does in Moscow. If he performs poorly enough in Moscow, then it will be another powerful sign that he is entering his next term in a weakened position.
Q: If Putin is going to become president, then why does it matter whether he appears "weakened" while doing so?
A: Because just as this election is not going to determine whether Putin will win the election (he will), it also is not going to determine whether Putin serves out his full term (now six years, not four, which means if Putin is again reelected in 2018 he could legally be in power for the next 12 years).
Whether Putin survives the whole six years is likely going to depend on whether the nascent protest movements in Moscow eventually make it impossible for Putin to stay in office, or, more likely, lead other elites to conclude that it more trouble than it is worth for Putin to continue as president. Thus, to the extent that a weakened Putin encourages more protest, the results of the election do "matter", perhaps especially so in Moscow.
Q: What about fraud? Wasn't this the big story of the recent Russian parliamentary elections?
"In this election the most important result will be what happens to the incipient protest movement in Moscow."
A: Absolutely. This is the next big question the election will answer: how much fraud will be committed, and how much of it will become public knowledge? The great revelation of the parliamentary election in December was just how easy it has become to catch fraud in the act through the use, in particular, of mobile phone cameras and to immediately publicise these violations through video-sharing services such as YouTube.
Q: But if the outcome is not in doubt, why does the level of fraud matter?
A: As I have written about previously, there are a number of ways in which fraud matters beyond simply affecting vote totals. First, fraud can serve as a focal point for people who individually are dissatisfied with an oppressive regime, but do not usually have a single event that is upsetting all of them simultaneously. In this way, the fraud can serve a coordinating role, allowing people to oppose the country's de facto leadership in large numbers at the same time over the same concern.
However, another way to think about the level of fraud is the manner in which it translates the election result into a signal of the "true" level of support for Putin. We can think of Putin's "true" support as the vote percentage he receives, minus the amount that the total has been inflated by fraud. So, for example, say Putin receives 55 per cent of the vote. If everyone believes that he legitimately received that 55 per cent of the vote, then most people will realise that he is supported by a majority of the population. However, if most people believe that 20 per cent of the vote is due to fraud, then it would suggest that Putin's "true" support in the country is significantly below 50 per cent. This in turn may lead both the mass citizenry and elites to behave differently than if they were to believe Putin genuinely had the support of a majority of citizens.
Q: So what's the most important take-away point for the future of Russian politics from this election?
A: Unlike a regular election - where the most important result is who wins - in this election the most important result will be what happens to the incipient protest movement in Moscow. If the election takes the wind out of the sails of the movement, then Russia can largely expect more of the same. If the protests continue and increase in size, then changes are likely ahead for Russian politics. While the presidential election is not going to determine who becomes the next president - this has already been determined - factors such as whether Putin wins in the first round, how he does in Moscow, and how people interpret the "true" popularity of Putin may have an important role in determining the future of the protest movements.
And in this way, the coming Russian presidential elections, which will have no impact on who becomes Russia's next president are, somewhat ironically, quite important for Russia's next president.
Joshua A. Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the award winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage.
Follow him on Twitter: @j_a_tucker
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.