Russia Opts for Wisdom and Caution in 2018 Presidential Election

The results of the Russian Presidential election are in and the incumbent President Vladimir Putin has received  76.6% of all votes. This is not surprising as Putin has remained consistently popular during his term. His decisive foreign policy which has kept Russians safe while expanding Russia’s diplomatic influence abroad, combined with Russia’s assistance to Syria in its war against Takfiri terrorism, has allowed Putin to present himself as a candidate for international security and stability.

Domestically, Russia’s steady investment into public welfare, including housing, health, roads and education has generally earned Putin high marks, even when the results of these efforts continue to fall short of the country’s needs. In his most substantial pre-election speech when he pledged to tackle aggressive debt collections, invest more in infrastructure, make high quality housing more affordable and create better job opportunities, most Russians tended to view Putin’s hands as the safest set of hands to accomplish the much needed job.

Putin’s consistent popularity was always going to make his victory more or less self-evident. What was less clear was who was going to win second place. The second place position in the 2018 election served as a kind of intellectual/ideological referendum for the way Russians wanted their country to tilt. Furthermore, the race for second was always a two horse race between political veteran Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and newcomer Pavel Grudinin who surprisingly represented the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in the place of longtime leader Gennady Zyuganov.

While Zyuganov is a highly professional politician, Grudinin spent his political life pivoting between various parties. His collective strawberry farm outside of Moscow gave him a kind of ‘leftist entrepreneurial’ appeal, but this was greatly tarnished when it was revealed that he deceived the Electoral Commission over the fact that he is also a billionaire with multiple Swiss bank accounts and a Latvian residency permit. His poor performances in Presidential debates only served to further make Grudinin appear like both an amateur politician and a less than sincere Communist. Ultimately, the campaign’s success was mostly directed by Zyuganov who managed the entire effort while the amateur served as more of a spokesperson.

By contrast, Vladimir Zhirinovsky is known to be a hands-on political operator who combines a ferocious rhetoric with a profoundly vast knowledge of geopolitical history. Many of Zhirinovsky’s long held predictions and policies have in fact come to fruition since the last Russian Presidential election in 2012.

These include:

–The importance of Russia re-connecting to Afghanistan

–The importance of the wider global ‘east’ and ‘south’ including China and the wider Asian world

–Russia’s economic, political and sociological identity as a Eurasian nation

–The fact that the 1997 Ukrainian Friendship Treaty was doomed to result in poor Moscow-Kiev relations

–The fact that US foreign policy would become more rather than less aggressive in the years following the war on Iraq

–The importance of good relations with the Arab world, Iran, Turkey and the wider Muslim global community beyond.

Zhirinovsky’s domestic policies tended to criticise a lethargy in housing reform, the need for urgent monetary reform and aid in the service of personal debt relief. Zhirinovsky also favoured cutting regulation for small businesses while insuring state ownership and price controls over large industries. In this sense, Putin’s campaign borrowed many of Zhirinovsky’s long standing policies and conveyed them with a different personal style.

Ultimately, Grudinin won second place, but it was more of a victory for the cautious and predictable policies of Zyuganov who ran the campaign than it was a victory for Grudinin who more or less stood in as a figurehead. Zhirinovsky retains great personal popularity throughout Russia, even among those who claim to be put off by his famously abrasive rhetorical style. However, ultimately, rather than give second place to a stand-out individual, Russian voters selected a Communist party that is both collective in terms of its ideology, rooted in the past in terms of its national history and one whose Presidential candidate while lacking all charisma, was happy to stand in for the party leader who still runs the show, Zyuganov.

President Putin’s short victory speech encapsulated the attitude of the Russian people that was more reflected in the vote for second place than the candidate who came third. Rather than a speech which emphasised future progress, the triumph of ideas and individual charisma, as Zhirinovsky would have done in victory, Putin instead addressed a rally to celebrate Crimean reunification in which he spoke about his thankfulness for the trust the Russian people put in him and the fact that his victory was a victory for “teamwork and unity” rather than for any one individual.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky however may yet have the last laugh, as Zhirinovsky predicted that by 2024, Russia’s Presidential elections would shift from a multi-candidate format with a popular incumbent to a system where two very strong candidates, one from the left and one from the right, square off in what will be a much tighter race. This will likely happen in 2024 as Russia’s political system continues to expand its ideological horizons, but in 2018, the Russian voters opted for safety first and collectivism second, while shelving philosophical creativity into third.

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