Why Putin Won: Seven Reasons

There are at least seven reasons why Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin won this month’s Russian presidential election. First, Putin retains a certain political base rooted primarily in the provinces, state employees and beneficiaries, and the state bureaucracy. They continue to reward him for stabilizing the Russian state, polity, and economy in the 2000s. Putin’s base amounts to some 40 percent of Russian voters. He took an additional 23.6 percent of the vote, giving him the 63.6 percent result that allowed him to not only avoid a risky runoff vote but be able to claim a mandate of sorts. That 23.6 percent was the result of the six remaining factors.

The second factor—an extension of the first—is post-Soviet Russia’s traditional pattern of patrimonial collective voting, in addition to voter fraud and vote count falsification in the titular ethnic Muslim and national republics. Patrimonial authoritarian regimes like Russia’s rely on sociopolitical and socioeconomic structures of patronage. High-level patrons provide social, economic, and political protection—the notorious Russian krisha or roof—to family, friends, and allied bureaucratic and business clans. These clients in turn can also be patrons of smaller, lower-level patronage structures. In the largely ethnic Russian-populated European, northern Siberian, and Far Eastern regions, where the United Russia (UR) party, Putin, and Dmitri Medvedev have garnered fewer votes, these structures work fairly well and deliver some collective voting. University and enterprise directors, bureaucrats, and officers with high-ranking patrons make it known to students, employees, lower-level appartchiks, and servicemen for whom they need to vote to keep the positions and support from above coming. Thus, YeR’s lower take in the December 4 Duma vote as compared with 2007 is the result of some weakening of discipline within these structures due to growing discontent and the defection of some high-ranking patrons and their clans or parts thereof from the ruling group as a result of disagreements sparked by expectations created by Medvedev’s promises of reform.

In the North Caucasus and elsewhere, there was some weakening of the national republic collective voting discipline, but it retained considerably more strength than in the Russian regions and again produced much higher returns for the Kremlin. Why does this happen? The reason lies in additional patronage structures that exist in these regions, especially in the titular Muslim republics. There the leading Islamic clergy, especially the sheikhs of the Sufi tariqats (orders or brotherhoods) predominant in the North Caucasus, provide an additional loyalty pyramid or further cement secular ones shaped by family, friends, and business interests. This makes it easy for patrons in Moscow to buy off large collective voting in favor of candidates and parties backed fully or in part by the Kremlin. These republics also practice more massive voting and counting fraud than in other Russian regions, producing truly unnatural, perverse electoral outcomes, including 90 percent plus for the Kremlin’s UR or presidential candidate in many of these republics (see table). Subtracting the percentage in these republics from the percentage Putin took nationwide, we find an addition of roughly 4 million votes or approximately 5.5 percentage points to Putin’s tally. (Approximately 72 million voted in the presidential vote.) The good news is that, in 8 of the 13 republics shown in the table, the level of collective voting declined from the 2004 to 2012 presidential election. The bad news is that, in 11 of the 13 listed republics, the vote for Putin in the presidential election was higher than the vote for UR in the Duma voting. This suggests the third and perhaps most important among the six ancillary factors outside of Putin’s base constituencies that cemented Putin’s victory: a marked increase in the falsification of the vote compared with December’s Duma elections.

Despite measures taken by Medvedev and Putin to reduce voter fraud—limiting absentee voting, installation of video cameras at polling stations, broad use of transparent ballot boxes, and an increase in the number of election observers in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations—the degree of falsification in the presidential election appears to have substantially exceeded that in the Duma vote. The noted measures to stamp out voter fraud seem to have led to increased reliance on falsified vote counting and precinct and local election committee reporting to the Central Election Commission (TsIK). This occurred not only in the republics but in many other regions, including St. Petersburg, which gave fewer votes to UR in December’s Duma elections than almost all of Russia’s regions—a mere 34.9 percent. In the presidential vote, Russia’s northern capital gave Putin a whopping 58.8 percent—an addition of 24 percentage points compared with the Duma vote.



Election Results in the Titular Ethnic Muslim and Selected Ethno-National Republics (in percent)


United Russia’s Percent in Duma Vote

Putin’s Percent in Presidential Vote






North Caucasus Titular and Predominantly Ethnic Muslim Republics

Republic of Ingushetiya





Republic of Kabardino-Balkariya





Republic of Dagestan





Republic of Chechnya





Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessiya





Other Titular and Predominantly Ethnic Muslim Republics

Republic of Bashkortostan





Republic of Tatarstan





Predominantly Non-Muslim Titular Ethno-National Republics

Republic of Mordoviya





Republic of North Ossetiya





Republic of Tyva





Republic of Kalmykiya





Republic of Kalmykiya





Republic of Adygeya





Nationwide Vote





Some intrepid St. Petersburg journalists sought to find out why. They examined and published official precinct tallies from the Duma and presidential elections in St. Petersburg showing an three-fold increase (from 14 to 47) in the number of precincts reporting unlikely votes of 90 percent or more for Putin in the presidential vote versus for the UR in the Duma elections. These high tallies for Putin occurred frequently in newly formed precincts, with new precinct election committees obviously. One observer has estimated an outlier high 8.44 percent falsification rate in Russia’s second-largest megalopolis compared to 3 to 6 percent nationwide.

I had the opportunity, while travelling to St. Petersburg during the election campaign and right up to election day, to gather some inside information on the heightened efforts to falsify the presidential vote in St. Petersburg by rearranging precincts. Two acquaintances of mine were members of two different precinct election committees in Russia’s “northern capital,” as it is sometimes called. In the Duma elections, these two committees had refused to “adjust” the voting results in UR’s favor when reporting the final tallies to the Central Election Commission. Their reward was to be disbanded and reformed with entirely new memberships—a clear attempt to ensure a better result for the Kremlin in the presidential vote. Neither of the two precincts where my acquaintances’ committees were replaced appeared on the lists of the precincts voting unnaturally for Putin at a rate of 90 percent or more, but clearly the purge of these committees’ memberships was undertaken to facilitate “adjustment” of the final tally.

These second and third reasons—collective voting and falsification—appear to have been the most important in adding votes to Putin’s base constituencies and thus securing the margin needed to avoid a runoff.

Fourth, Putin faced a field of weak candidates. Sergei Mironov, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, and even Communist Party of the Russian Federation candidate Gennadii Zyuganov have run several times each and never seriously challenged Putin or his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, except in 1996 when Zyuganov gave Yeltsin a run for his money. The final opposition candidate, the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, was a newcomer and a latecomer, entering the race a few months before the vote. Prokhorov’s late entry lessened any potential he had for challenging Putin, a potential evident in his third-place finish despite the late start and falsification that likely targeted his votes for transfer to Putin’s ledger. Other potential candidates who might have been able to ride the wave of the protest movement were kept off the ballot as a result of Russia’s prohibitive election laws, now to be reformed, and administrative arbitrariness, still to be tackled.

Fifth, Putin made sure to increase the distance he traditionally has kept from his corrupt UR party, viewed by many Russians as “the party of thieves and crooks.” UR’s poor performance in December’s Duma elections—losing 15 percentage points from its 64 percent win in 2007—was anticipated by the Kremlin, played a role in the decision to have Putin run for president rather than President Dmitri Medvedev, and was taken into account in planning Putin’s election campaign as evidenced by the creation of an alternative umbrella structure, the Popular Front, to rally his traditional constituencies around his candidacy. Putin was careful to organize his campaign staff keeping UR leaders in the background in favor of famous filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin as campaign chair.

Sixth, Putin received a smaller payoff by playing the “GosDep” or State Department card in order to capitalize on his voters’ and some other Russians’ fear of the West, in particular the United States and NATO, and a foreign-inspired “color revolution.” Putin made subtle and not so subtle statements tying the opposition leading the nascent “white revolution” to U.S. diplomats’ meetings with opposition leaders in the wake of the December demonstrations for free and fair elections. The GosDep card consolidated his base and brought back waiverers thrown into doubt by the nascent white revolution’s demonstrations.

Seventh and finally, Putin’s expressed willingness to negotiate with the nascent white revolution’s leaders and tolerate its demonstrations. This probably assured liberal elements within the elite that Putin would not crack down and could find a way out of the crisis or impasse caused by the white revolution movement, while maintaining stability. At the same time, some of the more radical statements surely frightened some voters, confirming Putin’s GosDep warnings and raising the value of maintaining stability. These politics surrounding the issue of stability and the white revolution shored up perhaps another percentage point for Putin at the polls.

What does the nature of Russian elections and Putin’s victory say about the present regime and the prospects for regime transformation offered by the white revolution? Given the hybrid nature of Russia’s political regime, Russian elections are only partially free and fair and highly dishonest affairs. The first three of the abovementioned reasons brought Putin the margin of difference between a first- and second-round victory and are rooted in the dishonest and corrupt authoritarian elements of Russia’s hybrid regime. After all, there is no reason to believe that, in a society where bureaucrats and police routinely work hand in hand with criminals in taking bribes and kickbacks, major elections would be conducted any differently. In this regard, Russian elections under Putin have been business as usual up till now.

The last four of the abovementioned reasons reflect Russia’s weaker, albeit, democratic aspects as seen in elections. They are the kinds of factors that influence election outcomes in consolidated democracies with their largely free and fair electoral systems and processes. They demonstrate the Kremlin’s need to engage in real public politics by shoring up base constituencies, discrediting the opposition, promising payoffs, and raising concerns and even fears among independent and undecided voters.

The positive takeaways are that the field of falsification has been squeezed largely into the more confined space of the post-vote election committees, and the pattern of paternalistic collective voting has weakened in some republics since 2004.

This and the burgeoning white revolution opposition mean that the 2012 presidential election is likely to be the last Russian federal-level election that will be conducted so unfreely and unfairly. The major reforms of the systems for Russia’s Duma, presidential, and gubernatorial elections now making their way through Russia’s Federal Assembly at Medvedev’s initiative are a major step in ensuring that the playing field will be even as well.

Only a false move by Putin to gut those reforms can offer a chance of preventing more free and fair federal elections in Russia’s future. Putin is unlikely to attempt so brazen a deed. If he does, then the streets can still have the last word.

Gordon M. Hahn is a senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a senior researcher and adjunct professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gordon M. Hahn