On 19 March Russian people from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea to Vladivostok in the Far East will go to the polls to elect their President. There is little hype. Incumbent President Vladimir Putin enjoys an overwhelming level of popularity, 80% according to many polls, and looks confident of an inevitable landslide.
No notable figure has stood against him. In fact, Russians themselves see no alternative to Putin. The opposition is not only weak; it simply has nothing to offer.
With the recent sacking of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov (hanging on from the Yeltsin era) Putin has strengthened his image as the man ready to defy the recent past and look to a brighter future. For many Russians, Putin has embarked on a historic mission to revive Russian fortunes and enable it again to play an important role in world affairs.
During his first term, Putin managed to kick-start a period of relative stability and economic growth. According to polls, the public hope the re-elected President will fight drug and alcohol abuse, improve healthcare, education and living standards.
Most Russians don’t see the connection between the good standards of living and freedom. According to the recent polls, only 9% of Russians trust mass media, but at the same time around 70% don’t mind further restrictions on press freedom. Current “undemocratic” policies are seen as a temporary measure in the build-up Putin’s so-called “vertical of power”.
Meanwhile, most other candidates have already withdrawn from the race, refusing to participate in the “farce” elections. But the only seriously farcical aspect was their initial nominations. They only present a minor obstacle. However, recent parliamentary elections with a 56% turnout could prove more troublesome; a turnout of one in two voters is required to make the elections viable.
To understand Putin’s popularity is to understand Russian history and spirit. Governed since 1613 by arguably the most absolute monarchy in Europe, navigated through the 20th Century by the iron hand of the Communist Party, Russians tend to see democracy in a slightly different light than their European counterparts.
For Russians, the elections are a referendum. They are a vote of confidence in their President. And confidence in their man and his domestic and foreign policies is complete and unfaltering.
Only after 2008 can any real judgement of his time in office be made, while the long-term impact will be felt in the decades to come. Russia and Russian people, however, expect him to deliver.