Putin’s Special Electoral Operation:  No Choice and No Competition in a Consolidated Dictatorship
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Putin’s Special Electoral Operation
No Choice and No Competition in a Consolidated Dictatorship

by Kathryn E. Stoner
March 19, 2024

Kathryn Stoner unpacks the results of the 2024 Russian presidential election and addresses the question of why an authoritarian leader like Putin would even hold an election when the process is anything but free and fair. In an election that saw unprecedented resources devoted to getting out the vote, she notes clear signs of dissent.

Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia for the first time in March 2000 with 53% of the vote, narrowly escaping a required runoff against the next highest-ranking candidate. In contrast, in 2024, running in his fifth presidential ballot, official results saw Putin receiving a whopping 87.3% of the vote with a purported 77.4% of eligible voters participating.[1] With this most recent and highly contrived electoral “win,” Putin has guaranteed himself another 6 years in the Kremlin, with an option for 6 more should he run again in 2030. In the 24 years that he has been Russia’s leader, the political system has evolved from a semi-competitive procedural democracy to a personalistic, highly repressive form of authoritarianism. This presidential electoral cycle was the least competitive and most highly controlled in the 33 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What was the point, and what does it tell us about how Russia is ruled today?

The 2024 presidential election was an orchestrated competition without any real choice. Putin faced three Kremlin-approved quiescent opponents (the fewest in any of the five presidential elections for which he has been a candidate), only one of whom received more than 4% of the vote. In contrast with previous presidential election, Russians were presented with a ballot with just the candidates’ names and no option to write in an alternative, or to indicate “against all.” With any semblance of free press muzzled or forced to operate from outside the country, and with the leaders of any real opposition in jail, in exile, or dead,[2] there was no public discussion of political issues and no airing of alternative views to Putin’s in the state-controlled media.

All of this raises the perennial question as to why authoritarian leaders like Putin bother to hold elections when the result is predetermined and the process is anything but free and fair? Everyone knows it is a sham, so why bother going through the motions?

In Putin’s case in 2024, it was all about demonstrating the legitimacy of his policies and the inevitability of his continued rule to his own citizenry. In February 2022, with the invasion of Ukraine, he undertook what has turned out to be the biggest gamble of his long tenure as Russia’s leader. Suffice it to say, the “special military operation” (it is still illegal in Russia to call it a war) has not gone as planned. With an estimated 315,000 casualties (including dead and those so badly injured that they cannot return to the fight), an uneven series of economic adjustments in response to sweeping international sanctions, and an unpopular “mobilization” of reserve troops that triggered the exit of an estimated one million highly skilled workers, Putin needed to demonstrate that the country is nonetheless behind him.[3] A resounding victory in what some critics have called his “special electoral operation” gives him the mandate to continue the war effort. This might require another mobilization of fighting-age men, a continuing high casualty count, and other deep sacrifices from the population. His regime’s very existence depends on social compliance. As a result, an electoral outcome that demonstrates to all that his policies seem to be emphatically supported by an overwhelming number of Russian citizens is essential.

To this end, this election saw unprecedented resources devoted to getting out the vote. For the first time ever in a presidential election, Russians were given three days to either submit a vote electronically (an option available to around one-third of voters), vote in person at a local polling station, or vote in the comfort of their own homes via a mobile ballot box. It is difficult to refuse to vote when a poll worker knocks on your door with ballots in hand. Reportedly, in Russian-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, poll workers traveling with a ballot box were accompanied by armed Russian soldiers—literally forcing the new “Russian citizens” to vote at gunpoint. In other areas of Russia proper, some people reported voting several times at the insistence of their employers, especially if they were employed by entities that are on the payroll of the Russian state. Others were asked to send selfies from a polling station or scan a QR code to demonstrate to their bosses that they had voted. This was in addition to the typical use of the state-controlled media, billboards, and social media exhorting Russians to perform their civic duty and vote.

The obsession with turnout and an overwhelming win by Putin signal to any potential rivals (recall that there was a short-lived military rebellion in June of 2023 led by the now deceased Yevgeny Prigozhin) that there is little point in challenging him in the future. To the liberal opposition and those Russians who may quietly question the wisdom of his policies, a resounding victory in even a highly orchestrated, noncompetitive election is intended to convince them that they are isolated and that no goodwill comes from resisting the regime. The message is that Putin is Russia, Russia is Putin.

Nonetheless, even in the face of the intense effort to demonstrate unambiguous, enthusiastic support for Putin, there were clear signs of dissent. First, before the elections began, Russians came out by the tens of thousands in an effort to garner the required number of signatures to add Boris Nadezhdin, the only clearly anti-war candidate, to the presidential ballot. The regime did what it has always done in these cases. It ruled that too many of the signatures were invalid for one unsubstantiated reason or another, and thus kept Nadezhdin (and another antiwar candidate Yekaterina Duntsova) from qualifying for the ballot. But the attempt to get these alternative candidates on the ballot indicated that despite the regime’s best efforts, there are still many Russians who do not support Putin.

Second, tens of thousands of Russians heeded the call of a campaign called “Noon Against Putin,” led by Aleksei Navalny’s widow Yuliya, to come to polling stations at noon on Sunday, March 17, the final day of voting, and form long lines either to vote for anyone but Putin or to spoil their ballots. It was a visible and technically legal form of protest intended to assure anti-Putin voters that they were not alone.

Third, the Russian Central Electoral Commission reported dozens of incidents of ballot box interference—in many cases colored dyes being poured on ballots, and several fires outside polling stations. Hundreds of thousands of hacks and distributed denial-of-service attacks rained down on the commission’s various websites.

Finally, even if we accept the officially announced election results (and there is reason to expect some degree of ballot stuffing and other forms of fraud),[4] with Putin at 87.3%, his three “opponents” gaining a combined 11.3%, and turnout reported at 77.4%, the arithmetic suggests that 33%–35% of eligible voters did not actually endorse Putin. They either chose not to vote or voted for someone else. Given the prodigious resources Putin and his team poured into this pantomime, his sham of a re-election may have produced the ritual show of legitimacy that he wanted, but evidently it still failed to deliver the total domination of Russia that he apparently seeks.

Kathryn Stoner is the Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Political Science (by courtesy) at Stanford University.


[1] The final results released on March 17 are available at https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/6578568.

[2] Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s death a month before the elections while in an Arctic prison camp remains unexplained.

[3] For casualty estimates, see Jonathan Landay, “U.S. Intelligence Assesses Ukraine War Has Cost Russia 315,000 Casualties—Source,” Reuters, December 12, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/us-intelligence-assesses-ukraine-war-has-cost-russia-315000-casualties-source-2023-12-12; and for estimates on the number of Russians who have left since the start of the war in February 2022, see Alexander Kynev, “Borba protiv uehvashih, Aleksandr kynev o vrede repressiy” [The Fight Against Those Who Left: Alexander Kynev on the Dangers of Repression], Radio Liberty, February 3, 2023, https://www.svoboda.org/a/borjba-protiv-uehavshih-aleksandr-kynev—o-vrede-repressiy-/32247325.html.

[4] Mike Eckel, “Shpilkin’s Razor: How a Statistical Model Raises Questions about Putin’s Election,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 19, 2024, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-putin-election-statistical-model-shpilkin-s-razor/32868789.html; and “At Least 22 Million Fake Votes Cast for Putin in Presidential Elections,” Novaya Gazeta Europe, March 19, 2024, https://novayagazeta.eu/articles/2024/03/19/at-least-22-million-fake-votes-cast-for-putin-in-presidential-election-en-news.