By Andrew Osborn
Vote in Russia’s presidential election this Sunday or get hyper-inflation and Africans in the army. That is the surreal message in a viral video meant to encourage people to vote in an election which polls show Vladimir Putin is on track to comfortably win
While Putin has dominated the country’s political landscape for the last 18 years, the Kremlin and its allies are still pulling out all the stops to ensure high voter turnout.
The clip, which has drawn accusations of racism and homophobia in some quarters, has been publicised by state TV and watched six million times online.
Alexander Kazakov, a pro-Putin political consultant who circulated the clip, said he wanted to ensure Putin’s win was utterly convincing. “Only then will Putin be able to conduct the best domestic and foreign policy,” he said.
As Putin, 65, prepares to serve what may be his last six-year term, Russian media, citing Kremlin sources, say advisers want a thumping 70 percent turnout with 70 percent of votes for Putin.
While Putin is genuinely popular, real competition is absent and authorities see turnout as a vital barometer of legitimacy.
Critics say efforts to boost turnout are cynical attempts to help Putin further entrench
“The authorities’ main task at this ‘election’ is to ensure high turnout to create the semblance of legitimacy,” says opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Putin needs healthy turnout to keep potential challengers at bay and supporters happy, says Chris Weafer of economic and political consultancy Macro Advisory.
“As long as Putin can show strong public support, his place amongst the elites and within the Kremlin is safe,” said Weafer.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, says the turnout campaign is “absolutely objective” and criticism of it groundless.
Putin is backed by state TV, the ruling party, and enjoys an approval rating of around 80 percent, but the Kremlin cannot take high turnout for granted.
Barred from running by what he says is a trumped-up suspended prison sentence, Navalny has urged Russians to boycott what he calls an unfair “re-appointment process.”
Kremlin sources say they are concerned about turnout too. Not because of Navalny, who polls show would not come close to beating Putin if allowed to run. But because everyone expects Putin to win whether they vote for him or not.
“Why should I bother voting, at a weekend, even if I back Putin when I know he will win regardless?,” said one source close to the authorities, who declined to be named because of the subject’s sensitivity.
Polls show none of the seven candidates running against Putin is a threat, which could also put off voters. Nor is Putin’s campaign style likely to lift turnout: he refuses to take part in pre-election debates.
For the authorities, Russia’s last parliamentary election, in 2016, was a wake-up call. The pro-Putin United Russia Party won a landslide victory, but turnout fell below 50 percent for the first time in the post-Soviet period amid voter apathy.
“I doubt that I am going to vote for anyone,” Nikita Nazarenko, a 21-year-old from southern Russia, told Reuters. “All my childhood was under Putin. Sometimes you want something different.”
Official turnout at presidential elections since the 1991 Soviet collapse has been between 64 and 69.7 percent.
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