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Joshua A. Tucker
Joshua A. Tucker
Joshua A. Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.
What does Russia's presidential election mean?
Webcams, set up at nearly all polling stations, ostensibly let Russian citizens monitor potential election fraud.
Last Modified: 06 Mar 2012 11:19
Independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov received almost 20 per cent of the vote in Moscow [EPA]

New York, NY - Displaying a predictive ability at a level of which my Americanist colleagues can only dream, I think it is safe to say that most of the claims I made in my pre-election report on the 2012 Russian presidential election have been substantiated:

Predictions aside, I do want to touch on what I think are two potentially interesting take-away questions from yesterday's results, one of which is likely to be more important for Russia, and the other for political scientists.

First, it is worth noting that the only one of Russia's regions in which Putin failed to secure a majority of the vote was Moscow (regional results available here). Moreover, in Moscow, independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, the ostensible candidate of the liberal opposition, received close to 20 per cent of the vote. So there is real opposition to Putin in Moscow (especially considering that these are the results after whatever "administrative resources" were brought to bear on improving support for Putin).

This, in turn, raises what may turn out to be the defining question of Putin's next term: how much support does he need in Moscow to continue to rule effectively? Regardless of whatever questions one may have about the extent to which official vote totals reflect Putin's true popularity, it is probably uncontroversial to claim that he is less popular in Moscow than he is in the rest of the country. So the question remains: is there a limit to how far Putin's popularity can plunge in Moscow, or is he somehow buffered by support in the rest of the country?

Second, apparently the government did manage to install webcams in almost all of the polling stations throughout the country. According to the Moscow Times, more than 2.5 million people registered with the website that was set up to allow citizens to view these feeds. To be best of my knowledge, this has never before been carried out anywhere in a national election, so what exactly these webcams accomplished should be an interesting subject for future research.

Why they were there in the first place is, of course, also an interesting question, and let me hazard a few potential guesses.

First, it may be the case that the Kremlin legitimately wanted to crack down on electoral fraud in the election in the election, even including fraud that would benefit their candidate. The reasoning here would be that if the Kremlin believed Putin was going to win convincingly anyways - not an unreasonable assumption - then the fewer allegations of fraud during the election, the more Putin's impressive vote total would be taken as a genuine signal of Putin's popularity. In other words, the goal may have been to avoid exactly the kind of speculation I made in my second bullet point above, and instead to have 64 per cent of the vote interpreted as unambiguously representing the support of 64 per cent of the population.

An alternative explanation, however, might be that the Kremlin was seeking to avoid the mechanism by which fraud was revealed following the parliamentary elections - that is, the use of individual cell phones to capture visible fraud in polling places by poll workers who believed they were not being observed. If we assume that the motivation for local-level officials to manipulate vote totals (e.g., to win the favour of the Kremlin) had not changed, then the webcams would provide a very powerful incentive for local officials to find other ways of manipulating results than the blatant forms of ballot stuffing that appeared online following the December parliamentary election.

Furthermore, with the webcams in place, the Kremlin now has the ability to respond to revealed instances of fraud as a defender of free and fair elections ("look, our webcams worked! We have caught the fraud!") as opposed to being put on the defensive when YouTube videos of fraud go viral.

All of these explanations represent potential motivation for the webcam experiment. It will be interesting in the future to see if data supports any of these contentions - and whether other countries pick up the Russian example and run with it in the future.

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, where an earlier version of this article was posted

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.

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