16.02 Polls Review

The Struggle for Peace: The Nadezhdin case and the expansion of calls for an end to the war may influence Vladimir Putin's election rhetoric

In rigid authoritarian regimes, the leader's electoral result is predetermined, must be above 80% and does not depend on the number of votes actually cast. Any mystery lies in how convincingly the electoral spectacle is played out in the eyes of the elite and the population. The Putin regime is approaching the 2024 presidential election with virtually no opposition and a censored media space, while survey data demonstrates that the population regards voting as a ritual. 85% of respondents inform sociologists about their intention to vote, but this level of turnout is never achieved, and only 38% of respondents discuss the upcoming elections with their relatives. So far, the main event of the 2024 election campaign has been the brief rise of Boris Nadezhdin, indicating a potentially high demand for a 'legal' anti-war agenda. However, a noticeable and broad demand for an end to the war does not necessarily imply the spread of anti-war views: the scenarios for achieving peace for supporters of conflict resolution are unclear and likely to fracture their unity. In the final stages of the presidential campaign, we should expect Putin to try to coopt the opposition's demand for peace by making superficial and vague peace-oriented statements or even initiatives.

In consolidated authoritarian regimes, the main mystery of an election is not who will win, but by what means and efforts the authoritarian regime will achieve the desired result. In 'soft' (sometimes called competitive) authoritarian regimes, the incumbent, i.e. the challenger who is already in power (the incumbent president or his successor), usually wins 60-70% of the votes. This is because such a regime has real support, does not need repression and allows non-radical opposition before the elections. Elections in this case are usually not free from falsification, but this falsification is limited in scale. In 'hard' authoritarian regimes, the authorities have significantly more control over society, repress their opponents, destroying the organisational potential of the opposition, and consistently censor the media space. The incumbent receives 80-99% of the vote, and these figures are not the result of counting ballots 'from below', but are tailored to fit the top-down demand.

During the first two terms of Vladimir Putin's presidency and the only term of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, Russia had the first type of regime. The incumbent garnered 64-71% of the vote, repression was almost non-existent, and fraud was predominantly localised. The 2018 elections were transitional, with Putin gaining 77% through extensive use of administrative resources, forced turnout and fraud. Wartime Russia has almost definitively turned into a regime of the second type, having reached the appropriate level of censorship and repressiveness. Therefore, in electoral terms, the authorities' task is to ensure a result above 80% (Meduza's sources from within the Russian authorities have also spoken about this task).

Neither the opposition nor the voters are able to prevent the regime from doing this. However, it is unclear how convincingly the regime will be able to stage the electoral spectacle and to what extent the remnants of the opposition will be able to symbolically delegitimise the elections or demonstrate their fictitious nature. That said, some studies suggest that overly blatant fraud can alienate and demobilise not only loyalists who believe they are joining the majority, but also the core electorate that believed the regime had real support.

Opinion polls do not reveal much about the 'pre-election' mood of citizens, who under such regimes tend to treat voting (and to some extent the polls themselves) as a ritual. Thus, according to Russian Field data from mid-January, 87% of those surveyed plan to vote in the elections (65% will definitely go, 22% are likely to go). A similar figure, around 85%, was reported by the ExtremeScan group in polls from late January and early February. According to ExtremeScan, 92% of those who support the 'special operation' plan to participate in the elections, while 68% of those who do not are planning to vote. 

Such a high level of willingness to participate in elections is completely unnatural (it is not typical for so many people to turn out for elections) and indicates the ritualistic nature of the responses. Despite the widespread intention to participate in elections, only 38% said they discuss the upcoming voting with relatives, friends, and colleagues. The most informed about the elections and expressing an intention to vote are elderly respondents who receive their information from television.

In the ExtremeScan survey, respondents were not asked about their intention to vote but rather about the candidates' ratings. They posed the question, 'If you go to the polls, which candidate will you vote for?', ignoring the fact that some voters will not go to the polls. 68% pointed to Putin, 20% are still undecided, and 6% named Boris Nadezhdin. Thus, the little-known politician with an anti-war agenda scored as much as all other 'alternative' candidates (there were seven on the list). The poll by ExtremeScan started when Nadezhdin had not yet been denied registration yet and concluded after that. As a result, Nadezhdin's rating fell almost twofold, and in the end he was selected by 6% of those surveyed, according to the researchers. Thus, on the eve on which he was barred from standing, Nadezhdin's rating was growing intensively. The signature campaign of anti-war candidate Nadezhdin, which gathered queues outside his headquarters, has been the main media event of the 2024 presidential election and almost became the Kremlin's main mistake. If allowed to run for election, his campaign would have become an arena for promoting a legal and even systemic anti-war narrative, posing a significant threat to the authorities.

The significance of the agenda to end the war, in addition to Nadezhdin's unexpected success, is also indicated by the answers to the question asked by Russian Field, 'What is the first decision that the president elected in the 2024 elections should make?' 26% of respondents answered 'End the military operation, establish peace'. This result was noted by many Russian media outlets, but was generally interpreted incorrectly. First, it was an open-ended question, meaning that respondents formulated their wishes freely, without prompts, and pollsters then aggregated the answers into broader categories. Moreover, 36% of respondents were unable to give any answer. This means that among those who were able to formulate a wish for the future president (64%), 40% named the end of the war. The next category, 'Ensure an increase in incomes and living standards', accumulated two and a half times fewer answers (10% of all or 15% of those who answered).

At the same time, the formulation of 'End the military operation, establish peace' does not mean that respondents wish for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine or are ready to admit that the invasion was a mistake. On the contrary, many of them are likely to believe that the optimal outcome is to achieve a Russian victory as soon as possible. Therefore, a distinction should be made between 'desire for an end to the war' and 'anti-war sentiment'. As noted in a recent Re:Russia study, in the available sociological data (apparently skewed by the conditions of war and repression), the share of supporters of the former position is increasing, while the share of supporters of the latter is not (→ Re: Russia: Second Demobilisation). In other words, the expectation of an end to the war is the most widely articulated demand among Russians, but the scenarios for achieving this are unclear to them and are likely to splinter the unity of those who do want peace. In this situation, we should expect fictitious and vague peace-oriented statements or even initiatives from President Putin in the last stage of his campaign. In this way he will try to appropriate the 'demand for peace' in order to avoid giving it to the anti-war opposition. This, of course, will not necessarily mean a change in the Kremlin's trajectory — after all, in Vladimir Putin's youth, the arms race was conducted by the Soviet leadership under the slogan of 'fighting for peace'.