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It's generally agreed that there was cheating in the Russian presidential elections, with the aim of increasing the number of votes for Vladimir Putin. There were widespread irregularities, and in some areas, turnout exceeded 100%. This was documented both in central and far-flung districts. While Putin may not be directly ordering this, its extent indicates that it likely occurs with his tacit encouragement and approval. This make sense; he'd want to stay in power, right?

Except, why? Apparently Putin, despite his authoritarian tendencies, is genuinely extremely popular with the Russian public. I assume this means he could win an actual election, without attracting international or even domestic condemnation for voting fraud. So, why would members of his party, or Putin himself, still engage in something that seems unnecessary and risky?

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    @bytebuster - That doesn't seem to answer it. The answers to that question address why an dictator might choose to cheat rather than simply fake a number. I'm asking why a popular dictator would do either of those, rather than simply run legitimately and win.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 8:19
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    Is it sure that Putin did cheat in elections, rather than some governors in far-out provinces trying to achieve unrealistically good results in an attempt to get Putin's favor or prove they are competent stewards? IIRC, I read an article where it was supposed that it was not the Kremlin itself faking results, but governors in outer regions of Russia. Gonna see if I find it.
    – Thern
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 8:22
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    I challenge your premise. According to international observers, the elections (the voting itself) was, if not crystal clear, cleaner than in past elections. The problem was not the voting itself, but the fact that many oppositors to Putin were barred from participating in the elections altogether. In other words: clean elections without no real choice. ft.com/content/e37624f4-2b95-11e8-9b4b-bc4b9f08f381
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 10:53
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    A possible reason might be to demoralize the opposition by demonstrating an ability to get away with cheating. If you lose a soccer game by a score of 4-2, you might want to come back after more practice and replacing a few players. If you lose 8-0 because the refs favored your opponent and you know the same refs will be used next time, why even bother trying again? The same applies to Putin's opponents. If they lose by 10% of the vote, they might think they can win next time by persuading 6% of the voters to change their mind. By cheating openly, Putin deprives them of that hope.
    – Readin
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 2:32

4 Answers 4

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Vladimir Putin is acting as a very strong nationalist leader in Russia. For example, he does not want to acknowledge having any real opposition; he never used to even say the name "Alexei Navalny," but instead always used vague and general terms such as "opposition" and "disruptive forces."

The highest possible election results are important for him to pose as the most popular and beloved leader in Russia without any competition. In the last presidential elections in Russia, the government made huge incentives for people to vote, mostly because of the popular opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who, after being criminally charged, was unable to be an official political candidate against Putin. He then called on his supporters to not go to vote, in order to boycott the election.

Putin does not want to look in any way weakened and create any feelings both inside and outside of Russia that he may be losing popularity at home; this is the main reason for any potential cheating from his side in the Russian election.

In the words of Vladimir Milov, main economics adviser to Navalny:

“We want to tear Putin down from his pedestal,” Vladimir Milov, an economic adviser and one of Navalny’s allies, said in an interview. “Putin will get a formal victory, but we want to make it a pyrrhic victory. We want to use the election to show that he doesn’t have as much support as he claims.”

Adding to what was commented, one of the goals in terms of the exact election outcome for Vladimir Putin was "70/70", which means to have at least 70% turnout and to gain 70% of the votes, which should ensure that he still does not have any real opposition and is not losing much popularity, as stated here:

Contrast that to prospects for Vladimir Putin, who will secure a new term in Russia's election on Sunday and whose only real concern is making sure a convincing number of voters turn out. His advisers have a goal of 70/70 - 70 percent turnout with 70 percent of votes for Putin - a threshold they believe will keep potential challengers at bay and shore up his position as Russia's only viable leader for another six years.

From The Guardian Article (article)

The opposition pointed to video evidence of voter irregularities at a number of polling stations across Russia. They included ballot stuffing and attacks on some vote observers, as well as reports of ballots being cast by “dead souls”, people who have died but remain on the electoral rolls. In one video shared online from the Siberian region of Yakutia, voters patiently queued behind a man shoving ballots into the ballot box.

The Kremlin had pushed a broad get-out-the-vote campaign before the elections, apparently concerned that Putin’s popularity might not be enough to get voters to the polls. Incentives included raffles for prizes including iPhone Xs and cars.

From Bloomberg article(article)

The election was fake because Putin's most vocal and most politically talented rival, Alexei Navalny, wasn't allowed to run because of a trumped-up criminal conviction. It was fake because the "opposing candidates" were hand-picked by the Kremlin and because the majority of Russian media are under direct or indirect Kremlin control. It was also fake because of a fierce administrative pressure on Russia's millions of government-dependent voters -- public servants, students, workers at state-controlled enterprises -- to turn out, and because at many polling stations, especially those where the fragile Russian opposition had no observers, ballot boxes were stuffed.

There are, however, fewer reasons this time around than in several previous elections to describe the outcome as fake, too. Sergei Shpilkin, a physicist and electoral statistician who convincingly demonstrated irregularities in previous vote outcomes, noted that the vote falsification level was "likely at a record low" and close to what he'd seen back in 2004, during Putin's second, conflict-free election. According to Shpilkin, up to 8 million votes may have been added to the actual count.

I recommend reading these interesting articles that are related to your question:

Bloomberg

Reuters

The Guardian

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  • Your main claim in actually answering the question (what Putin actually wants: no [real] opposition) isn't directly supported. Putin is actually claiming the opposite: unian.info/politics/… Of course it looks like double-speak, but you're only letting others speak for him in your answer, so it's not a very balanced one. Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 15:47
  • @Fizz - It's worth including that, but as you say it's likely untrue.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 17:25
  • @Fizz Well, the question was why is he cheating when he has safe win basically. And the main point I wanted to make Is that he wanted to remain seen strong, "without" real opposition or discontent in Russia... Of course, he is not going to tell the truth himself in order to quote him... And I certainly didn't meant to say that he wants to get rid of any opposition so he would be the only candidate left.
    – Ver
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 17:31
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Putin is just the leader and token image of a large political machine with internal power struggles. As long as it doesn't become a scandal and senior leadership tolerate electoral transgressions, low level party cadre have a strong incentive to report good election results - by all means necessary - since getting good results in their region, town, or borough is a way to distinguish themselves and climb the ladder to higher political appointments.

This is a similar process to the cult of personality that frequently appears in authoritarian regimes (and starting to affect Putin too): it's not so much a desire of the dictator to satisfy his megalomaniac needs, but it's an emergent phenomenon where lower level cadre must project unambiguous loyalty to the regime. Since the competitive pressure is always towards more loyalty and never any dissent, the cultural window of "what is acceptable" to say about the leader spirals out of control.

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  • This might explain why nothing happens but not why he does it in the first place.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 17:54
  • That's the idea, he doesn't do it: he just tolerates electoral fraud and it happens by itself due to structural reasons.
    – yudozis
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 11:30
  • That isn't what I am getting from your answer.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 13:40
  • Why isn't that clear from the answer? Putin is obviously the passive agent in this chain: "As long as it doesn't become a scandal and senior leadership tolerate electoral transgressions" -> "party cadre have a strong incentive to report good election results - by all means necessary"
    – yudozis
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 13:09
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Another consideration is that while Putin is reasonably popular, most of his political environment is not, and they too go to elections.

United Russia party is not popular per se. A lot of governors (such as infamous Beglov of St. Petersburg, but also many regional leaders) are not popular. State Duma (parliament) is not popular. When you have personalist autocracy, people (even moderate loyalists) tend to project bad stuff on the rest of political system, so you have a popular leader on the background of unpopular deep state.

So the following things happen:

  • Cheating elections is needed to win less popular elections (the ones where there is no Putin).
  • Putin tries to transfer some of his influence towards less popular elections, spending some popularity.
  • Now that it has happened, he also needs some cheating to show good results (see also @yudozis answer)
  • You also should not discount that people genuinely want change, so Putin would already not win with a huge margin since he's not new.
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Except, why? Apparently Putin, despite his authoritarian tendencies, is genuinely extremely popular with the Russian public.

The authenticity of Russian polls is very questionable. It is like you don't support him and neither does anyone of the people you know, and yet you read there are 70% (or what is the number this days) of the population who think differently. This alone makes you think "you're outnumbered in this opposition" and high voting results only increase this feeling.

I assume this means he could win an actual election, without attracting international or even domestic condemnation for voting fraud.

This is if the polls are true, but it's a question whether he or his party believe in these numbers.

So, why would members of his party, or Putin himself, still engage in something that seems unnecessary and risky?

Given how he treats Navalny as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I guess the voting violations, if not necessary, then just in case (out of fear). As I mentioned, high voting results make the opposition less confident, which is quite valuable to support the regime.

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