Turn up at a polling station in Russia in March and get the chance to win an iPhone or iPad. That’s one of the plans the Kremlin is considering in a bid to secure a high turnout in the presidential elections being held then, according to a leaked document reported by a Russian media outlet.
Vladimir Putin’s re-election as president is assured. Yet while he remains highly popular, according to opinion polls, the overall success of the presidential election isn’t, and opposition activists say the Kremlin is worried as it tries to balance between keeping tight control over campaigning and avoiding voter apathy.
The Kremlin, they say, is determined to ensure a big turnout to demonstrate that Putin remains Russia’s "irreplaceable leader," 18 years after first coming to power, and that his grip on the nation hasn’t weakened.
The country’s only truly independent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner, has been excluded from standing; his disqualification was upheld Saturday by Russia’s Supreme Court.
Still, he remains a thorn in the side of the Kremlin as he seeks to portray the election as manipulated, using online videos to mock corruption in Putin’s circle and staging street rallies to provoke a Kremlin response.
Navalny, who rose to prominence galvanizing street protests in Moscow against alleged voter fraud in the 2011 legislative elections, says other candidates are handpicked or useful as props. Kremlin officials deny the accusation. In a recent television interview, Putin wouldn’t even mention Navalny by name, but the Russian leader gruffly said he wouldn’t allow Navalny to “destabilize our country.”
A leaked Kremlin document outlining ways to get voters to the polls suggest there are indeed worries among Putin’s officials about apathy and boycotts. According to the leaked document, reported by RBC Media, the Kremlin is planning to offer iPhones and iPads for the best voting station "selfies" as part of a bid to create a “carnival-like polling day” and draw more people to vote.
Under the plan, celebrities and famous sports figures could be enlisted to promote the "Photo at the Polls" contest. Other attractions under consideration include staging family games and offering non-binding referendums on topics appealing to families, according to RBC.
“The aim is to run an election that looks enough like a real one to arouse some interest – as the regime needs a strong turnout to claim legitimacy - but not so real as to include genuinely subversive and critical voices,” analyst Mark Galeotti, a researcher at the Institute for International Relations, a Prague-based research institution, wrote recently.
Navalny has called for a nationwide strike for January 28 to launch a boycott of the vote. “The aim of our strike is to cause maximum political damage to Putin,” he told supporters in a recent online broadcast.
The 41-year-old was barred last month from standing in the March poll by the country’s election commission on the grounds that he has a 2013 embezzlement conviction that Navalny says was politically motivated and engineered to keep him out of the election.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled the proceedings against the opposition leader were “arbitrary and unfair.” Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said the case was “proof that we do not have independent courts.” Since announcing his intention to run, Navalny has been doused twice with antiseptic liquid by assailants — one attack left the vision in his right eye impaired temporarily.
An opinion survey released in December by the Moscow-based Levada Center, a polling company, suggested that Putin will likely fall short of securing the Kremlin-earmarked goal of 70 percent of the vote — and that turnout will fall below that number as well. The 65-year-old Putin kicked off his election campaign officially last week, visiting a factory in Tver, a city 170 kilometers northwest of the Russian capital, Moscow.
Last month, the Kremlin warned the United States not to meddle in the upcoming Russian elections when Washington criticized the barring of Navalny from the race.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the U.S. of “direct interference in the electoral process” after the State Department urged “the government of Russia to hold genuine elections that are transparent, fair, and free.” On Thursday, the Reuters news agency cited President Putin as saying Navalny was the U.S. pick for Russia's presidency, which was why Washington complained about Navalny being barred from seeking office.
Putin’s electoral rivals include Communist Party politician Pavel Grudinin and television host Ksenia Sobchak, once a Playboy cover girl. The 36-year-old Sobchak denies accusations by Navalny that she’s a stooge and is coordinating her campaign with the Kremlin.
But Vitali Shkliarov, one of her advisers, indicated this week that her campaign may well fit into the Kremlin’s electoral management plans.
Writing for CNN, he said: “The Kremlin may be afraid of lower voter turnout - an indication of voter apathy and a decreasing legitimacy in the government. By allowing the semblance of increased competition, the Kremlin may be hoping to engage more voters - and get higher voter turnout on Election Day."