Random thoughts on democracy and Russian presidential election

As some of you might know, Russia sort of elected a new old president a week ago. After taking a 4 years break as prime minister Putin now becomes Russian president for the third time. I’ve been following the Russian-language reactions to the election which I find quite interesting. While I like most readers of this blog have the luxury of living in a democracy, sometimes I need a reminder about what actually constitutes a democracy. Hint: elections in regular intervals are not sufficient.

When discussing whether an election was fair and democratic most people tend to focus on vote counting. This election shows however that distortions of election results start much earlier than that, e.g. when the candidates are registered — two candidates were excluded for bureaucratic reasons. Even more importantly, the equal opportunity rule was severely violated here. There is little to none independent press or television in Russia, so the news were as usually following Putin closely and uncritically. The opposition candidates on the other hand got far less attention and were presented in an unfavorable light.

The rhetoric used by Putin and his staff in the election campaign is worth mentioning. He did his best to badmouth the opposition, insinuate criminal and anti-Russian motives. Most remarkably however, he revived the old foreign intervention stories: the opposition was directly or indirectly accused of serving US interests. In best Soviet tradition no proof of US involvement was given nor any reason why the US would be interested in a leadership change in Russia. But it seems to have worked: there is apparently still a large population in Russia that buys such primitive stories about external sources of internal problems.

Given the massive pre-election propaganda, nobody was seriously doubting Putin’s victory. So while an unprecedented number of people enlisted as election monitors it was doubtful that they would find anything — with the preparations already done Putin could simply lean back and let people enjoy “fair” elections. Yet the web today is full of well-documented reports describing a wide range of falsifications. Often the issue can even be easily seen in the official results, e.g. the anomalously high absentee ballot counts for some of the polling stations with similarly anomalously high Putin vote counts. While such irregularities cannot be entirely prevented of course, the important factor is that in many cases the same falsification approach was taken for a large area which quite certainly means that it has been dictated from above (e.g. while election monitors reported relatively few manipulations of vote count protocols this issue is strikingly prevalent in St. Petersburg). The issues are obvious enough that heads should rolls — in a democratic country. This won’t happen in Russia of course as the aftermath of the legislative election in December has shown. The courts will cover up and reject the complains with bogus reasoning, independent courts don’t exist in Russia.

One question appears quite frequently in the discussions: Why were these falsifications necessary? Putin would have won either way given his unfair advantage over all other candidates. One theory is that Putin absolutely needed to demonstrate his superiority over the opposition. The other is that he needed to know which governors were loyal to him and the governors went out of their way to provide the best vote counts. Personally, I feel that both theories get it wrong. For example, they don’t explain why Putin suggested putting up web cams on all election stations (quite a remarkable feat given the limited time). One can consider these cameras security theater of course as they recorded extremely few manipulations, avoiding two cameras with a fixed viewing angle wasn’t hard. But they did make manipulations harder and they did make it simpler for election monitors to prove that the videos they recorded are real.

It appears to me that Putin doesn’t really controls the governors, their relationship being rather one of mutual dependency. Putin’s power is based on the loyalty of the governors he appointed (Putin disposed of governor elections in 2005), he rewards them by overlooking their corruption involvement. The governors on the other hand depend on Putin because a new president might stop their illegal income. In fact, the idea of Putin losing the election must be horrifying for them — enough to falsify election results just to be on the safe side, no matter what Putin himself thinks about that. And they have nothing to be afraid of, Putin wouldn’t undermine his power by moving against them, at most he would sacrifice a pawn — somebody on the lower levels would take the blame.

What does this all mean for the democracy we are living in? In my opinion, having Germany in mind:

  • An independent press (bloggers included) that will critically inspect everything that the government is doing is extremely important. This sounds trivial but especially the “critically inspect” part comes short occasionally or ends up in hysteria beyond any reason.
  • Ideally, the mass media should recognize populist statements as such and treat them accordingly, these shouldn’t be a tool that mainstream parties can afford using. Well, wishful thinking but at least the situation in Germany is nowhere near being comparable to Russia.
  • One really gets to appreciate that Germany doesn’t concentrate all power in a single person, that’s a historical lesson well-learned. The German chancellor has far less power than the Russian president — in addition to having to deal with independent governments in federal states.
  • Independent courts are not optional, they are rather an essential part of a working democracy.


  • Alex

    Thumb up !

  • AntiPirata

    Germany a democracy? I don’t know where you live, but from my corner of Germany, things look quite different!

    Besides… ask yourself why every politician “does his/her” own thing and you can’t nail them down (unless you start a revolution like Russia would need one).

    And former chancellor “Gerhard Schröder” becoming a GasProm manager the day after he stopped being a chancellor raises the question: what else besides energy (gas from GasProm) are we importing from Russia.

    Do the “Änderungen im Datenvoratsspeicherungsgesetz ab 2013”, the “Erweiterte Meldepflichten seit 2005”, the “GEZ Gesetzesänderung ab 2013” and things like “Behördenübergreifender Datenaustausch seit 2011” ring a bell?

    If you think “all is fine” in Germany, you’re wrong. I have to wonder – after all, Germany’s media still is able to talk about all this – so you should know!

    As they say in Germany: “Unwissendheit schützt nicht…”

    Closing your eyes so you don’t see facts that evolve here will only result in one consequence: Germany will sooner or later become a system like the one we’re looking at in Russia.

    In the end I get the feeling you’ve missed to learn about German history and the rules that created the foundation this country has been rebuild upon after 1945.

    Germany is as Democratic as every other country: you vote, but who says your vote actually counts? The ones counting who are the same people/parties to be voted for? Great, so the “controlling party” is the “party to be voted for”.

    Nice… if I were a politician and someone would ask me: I would vote for myself. Who wouldn’t? And if there are some votes missing, I would finetune the results and team up with another party… just to make sure I stay in the Government.

    That’s what practically happens here since around and about 1956. Open ANY book about Germany’s recent history (after 1950) and you can read it for yourself!

    But let me give you a better and more recent example: did you get a chance to vote when it came to the point where Germany had to decide if we want the Euro (€) or not? No, you weren’t asked… they just did it. They did not care that more than 52% of the German public (according to IMAP) were opposed to it.

    As Wikipedia writes at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy :

    “Democracy is an egalitarian form of government in which all the citizens of a nation together determine public policy, the laws and the actions of their state, requiring that all citizens (meeting certain qualifications) have an equal opportunity to express their opinion.”

    So, when “they” (= politicians and elite families like “zu Gutenberg”) decide things and don’t ask for or even care about your and the majority’s expressed opinion, you are NOT living in a democracy.

    Guess you missed “Stutgart 21” and “Harz Gesetze” too, didn’t you? Wake up! You’ve been practically enslaved by the laws of the country you live in, and no one gave you a chance to express your opinion.

    You actually call this country a “democracy”?


    Welcome to the Russian system, my friend. Welcome to Germany!

    Wladimir Palant

    “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Winston Churchill

    Where did I say that everything is fine in Germany? I actually said the exact opposite, democracy in Germany has its issues. Also, democracy in general isn’t a perfect system. Every individual citizen is bound to be regularly unhappy with the decisions made even in a perfect democracy. And a democracy is heavily dependent on informed and vigilant citizens that form their opinion rather than believing what others say – and stand by it. That’s still a big issue in Germany.

    Side note: Germany isn’t a direct democracy and doesn’t claim to be – direct democracy never works on a large scale. For example, the majority always tends to oppose change until the problems affect everybody. But a government has to act proactively, not reactively. The idea is to elect smart people into government who will know better than you what needs to be done. So “the government did something even though the majority opposed it” is a moot point if this something was better for everybody in the long term.

    But it is this comparison that makes you appreciate what you have. If you compare the state of democracy in Germany to Russia then you either didn’t read or didn’t understand my blog post. If you look at Russia you understand that there are some very basic things that you consider just natural – but they are not. Things like “vote fraud will be penalized”. Or: “newspapers are free to cover the election from their angle without fearing government sanctions” (whether that angle is “objective” is a different story). Or: “blaming inner problems on external scapegoats is not acceptable for mainstream parties”.

  • Sarah

    Quoting wise men that are smarter than me: “Democracy is illusory, and only serves to mask the reality of elite rule.”

    Maybe you would like to read “Against the Masses” by “Joseph V. Femia” (Oxford 2001). Also, “The Open Society and its Enemies” by “Karl Raimund Popper” (1943) gives great insights on democracy in Germany after the second world war.

    Wladimir Palant

    I quoted another wise man in my response above: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Do you want to bother explaining what education deficiencies you suspect I have? I’m afraid that I won’t appreciate your reading advise otherwise.

  • Sarah


    Wow there! Where do you get that impression from? I never said anything about “education deficiencies” or implied anything like that.

    I shared some reading tips on the subject as I suspected you could be interested in good, entertaining and fascinating reading material on the subject. I would not have referenced those books if I would have thought that you weren’t smart enough to cope with those books as they are not “light reading material for the average Joe”.

    If anything, my comment implied that I think you are NOT the “average Joe”. After reading your post, I was convinced you are one of the smarter people out there; someone who is smart enough to actually understand those books and because of this, sharing their titles made sense to me. That wasn’t an insult, that was a compliment!

    Reading my comment again and again, I really don’t understand how you ended up getting another impression. If you feel as if I’ve stepped on your toes, I’ll gladly state that your interpretation of my comment is faulty and I’m sorry you have been reading it the way you did. My comment was posted with the friendliest intentions. I hope you’ll be able to detect that in between the lines I wrote.

    Have a nice weekend,


    Wladimir Palant

    It was mostly because I saw it in connection with the (rather unfriendly) comment by AntiPirata and the intention of your post wasn’t clear. I guess that I misunderstood, sorry about that.