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Why Russia holds presidential elections even though Putin is all but assured a win

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russians go to the polls this week to elect a president, but with virtually no one to challenge him, there's little doubt current President Vladimir Putin will win a fifth term. So why do authoritarian leaders hold elections at all? I discussed Russia and other seemingly predetermined election outcomes with Ben Ansell. He's a professor of comparative democratic institutions at the University of Oxford. So, Ben, I want to start with whether elections like these matter when you have leaders who win the vote in something that's not free or fair because it's rigged for the autocrat.

BEN ANSELL: It is rigged. So they might matter for the autocrat, but not for the reasons that elections matter in Europe or North America, in the sense that they don't matter in terms of who's going to be ruling the day after election day. We know that up front. That's baked in. They might matter for the ruler to be able to know more about their citizens or know more about their rivals, or to try and legitimize themselves with other countries. Countries that have closer ties to the West, even if they're not full democracies, often want to act and look like democracies. And they might think that that will help them with military alliances they have with the West. Or they might think it will help them if they're bargaining with the World Bank or the IMF over money. Anything they can do to look more like a democracy might legitimize getting things that they want.

FADEL: Does it end up solidifying their power, these types of elections?

ANSELL: Yeah, I mean, these elections can play a really useful role for autocratic leaders. So Vladimir Putin has his famous 70/70 rule. When he goes up for a presidential election, he wants 70% turnout and he wants to get about 70% of the vote. And lo and behold, he almost always does. It's always between two thirds and three quarters of the vote. In some ways, real power - right? - is being able to convince enough people that the Russian public truly does love Vladimir Putin, and if the elections really were free and fair, they'd vote for him. And so you make it look more like an election.

FADEL: More realistic than that 95%, 98% that we see in other places.

ANSELL: Exactly. It looks less silly. It allows Putin to play a role where he also says to his opposition, both elites and in the public, look how popular I am. Do you really want to go up against me? I can get three quarters of people to come out and vote for me. That's the sweet spot, really, for this kind of electoral authoritarianism.

FADEL: In Russia, we've seen this absolute crackdown on all dissent. But leaving that space for people to somewhat choose, has it ever backfired?

ANSELL: I mean, in the past, people actually thought that there might be openings within Russian politics in the early 2000s, when Vladimir Putin really only did one, 55%, 60% of the vote. And there are always, by the way, leaders in Russia who are going to win 20% of the vote. The Communist Party will always win about that much, but they are a kind of official opposition. So Putin isn't really going to allow a kind of Navalny-like figure to rise up and overthrow him. He's not going to let things get to that point.

But other dictators haven't been, well, so in control of the elections. So the Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, in the early 1990s, he tried a kind of transition to democracy with referendums that he thought would keep him in power. And when those didn't work, he then allowed a multi-party election, which he thought he would win. And then he was turfed out, right? So it can go wrong. But I suppose you might think that element of risk makes it feel less like a sham election. And as long as you keep winning, that's actually quite a good trade-off for you.

FADEL: So how do governments like Vladimir Putin's in Russia ensure that 70% number? I mean, is it about just leaving just enough opening so that it seems like there can be an opposition, or how does it work?

ANSELL: So the dictator's playbook has a set of hard tools and a set of soft, more sophisticated tools. And so you could just muck around with the hard tools and engage in, you know, ballot box stuffing or driving the votes around in vans. And that's the kind of thing that we saw a few years ago in Belarus, when Lukashenko claimed that he'd won with 90% of the vote.

FADEL: Right.

ANSELL: But people on the ground thought that he might narrowly have lost it. So that just must have been broad electoral fraud. You don't want to get to that point - right? - because then there is the risk that you might actually lose the election if your shenanigans don't pay off. So a better way is to try and limit your opposition by - through legal means, often, by excluding people. This is very common in Russia, basically, as happened with Navalny, to put people on criminal charges and say, oh, too bad you can't stand.

FADEL: The late opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

ANSELL: Yeah. Or alternatively, you do what you see in places more like Hungary, maybe Poland, too, till recently, which is you have media ownership laws and public media access rules that advantage your party dramatically over other parties in terms of how much the public get to hear from you. And that propaganda effect might push you over the edge every time anyway.

FADEL: That's Ben Ansell. He's a professor of comparative democratic institutions at the University of Oxford. Thank you so much for your time.

ANSELL: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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