Putin’s vote share nears outer limits but still the only way is up

<span>Putin needed to make a statement this year as he faces one of the most turbulent periods of his 25-year rule.</span><span>Photograph: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Putin needed to make a statement this year as he faces one of the most turbulent periods of his 25-year rule.Photograph: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin is approaching the electoral outer limits. Claiming a record landslide on Sunday of 87.28% of the vote on a 77.44% turnout, Putin has launched himself into the stratosphere of post-Soviet election results.

It is a mathematical axiom for any president-for-life: support should never go down, only up; turnout should never go down, only up. And as Putin’s one-man rule extends past a quarter of a century, Russian officials retain straight faces even as they post astronomical numbers that would make many convinced autocrats blush.

The Russian president is now enshrined in the firmament with the late autocrats Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, whose personality cult regimes were backed up by carefully controlled electoral landslides in the high 80s and low 90s right up until their deaths.

Yet Putin can still go further, into full orbit with men such as Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, who posted above 95% in his last two elections, or Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who won more than 97% in his own last two elections.

The record holder is Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmenistan leader who won 99.5% of a 1992 vote. In 1998 he erected a 12-metre-tall gold-plated statue of himself that rotated to always face the sun.

“An official result of 87% support might seem ridiculous but it’s a logical outcome for the personalist authoritarian system Vladimir Putin has built,” said Ben Noble, an associate professor of Russian politics at University College London.

As he described it, the pressure to improve the results comes from above and below. “The official voting figures are the result both of clear signalling from the presidential administration to produce an even better result than in 2018 and efforts by lower-level officials to impress their superiors, two factors that push the results higher and higher.”

Putin this year needed to make a statement as he faces one of the most turbulent periods of his 25-year rule. These were the first elections since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Tensions with the west are at their highest since the cold war. And Russia is facing unprecedented sanctions as its economy becomes dominated by state industries, especially the defence sector.

In his victory speech, Putin drew a direct line between the war and his landslide electoral win. The victory was “due to the drama of the events that the country is going through … due to the fact that we are literally forced to defend the interests of our citizens, our people, with weapons in our hands, to create a future for the full-fledged, sovereign, secure development of the Russian Federation, our homeland,” he said. “The results, and above all the turnout, show that ordinary people feel this and understand that a lot depends on them.”

That is his narrative. Not everyone is buying it. European nations delivered unprecedented criticism of the elections on Monday. Germany said it did not recognise the results as “legitimate” and a spokesperson did not directly address a question about whether Putin would be referred to as “president”. “We don’t have a dialogue with Vladimir Putin so it’s not a question right now,” the spokesperson said.

David Cameron, the UK foreign secretary, said the scale of the victory claimed by Putin “starkly underline[s] the depth of repression under President Putin’s regime, which seeks to silence any opposition to his illegal war”. He said: “Putin removes his political opponents, controls the media and then crowns himself the winner. This is not democracy.”

Members of the Russian opposition had called on the international community to declare the results illegitimate. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who now lives in exile, said before the vote that one of Putin’s main goals was to show foreign leaders that his control of Russia was strong. He urged them not to endorse the results.

Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said the numbers marked “the final break with western conventions”.

He said: “The first part of Putin’s rule took place with the tacit recognition of western rules … [but] 85% when elected for a fifth term is a complete sovereignisation of numbers, a turn to the east and one of the ways to communicate that the Russian regime now operates according to laws that are not even superficially related to the western ones.”

The elections were also about stabilising Putin’s rule at home, where the greatest threat to his government may come not from a democratic opposition but instead from conservative forces or even those in his own government, whom he has entrusted with running Russia’s vast security and state apparatus.

Noble called the election result an “important signalling mechanism to various audiences, including, most importantly, the elite. The message is that Putin is still firmly in control and able to secure a thumping electoral victory, including through the use of various types of manipulation. That will likely dissuade members of the elite from thinking about a post-Putin world, for now.”

There will be a post-election hangover as the populist measures taken by the government to control prices for petrol and food are relaxed. (Major breweries have already warned retailers that prices for beer will soon rise by 8-15%.)

Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter, said the “parties are over, the work week is beginning. Soon, people will begin to get a stronger feeling that they have been fooled: they promised one thing but they are slipping something completely different.”

But the Kremlin will cajole, coerce or falsify those votes again in 2030, and then again perhaps by 2036, when Putin will probably seek even higher numbers.