There is an interesting contradiction. Twitter is full of accounts of election fraud, especially so-called ‘carousel voting’ and the webcams now watching polling stations seem to have shown numerous irregularities. But here in southern Moscow a thoroughly unscientific amble around a number of polling stations, often buried deep within the high-rise villages that nestle between the main thoroughfares, has been decidedly free of drama. The mood seems in the main relaxed and despite a couple of instances of more heated political debate (the most vigorous, ironically, was between a partisan of the Communist Zyuganov and a champion of billionaire Prokhorov), amiable.
That’s not to say that fraud isn’t taking place, although it would have been personally gratifying to have seen people wheeling in barrow-loads of forged ballots or the like. But in many ways it mirrors a wider sense of this perplexing election.
On the one hand it is deeply, upliftingly, startlingly exciting. In just three months, there is a sense that politics has returned to Russia. That may not always be a pretty or even positive thing, but the notion that there are real choices to be made and debates to be held is invigorating.
At the same time, though, this has been a quiet and often seemingly circumscribed process. If I think back to past Russian elections, let alone — and here i date myself — the 1989 Soviet elections following Gorbachev’s democratization program, they were marked by a great deal more sound and fury on the streets. To be sure, I’m only in Moscow and only for a few days, but I’ve been struck by the absence of campaign posters (I’ve seen one each for Putin and Prokhorov, no more), of campaigners and if much political graffiti. And while central Moscow may be full of OMON, for most of the city it’s another quiet Sunday.
So how to reconcile this with the passion and commitment that crowds a Bolotnaya Square, or rings Moscow, or sees 82,000 people sign up to be election monitors in the capital alone? My first thought is that it is because of a disconnect between expectations of this poll and the wider political struggle. I don’t think anyone now questions that Putin is going to win, and in the first round at that. There’s no getting away from the fact that he remains Russia’s most popular politician, even if his vote is also buttressed by the use of administrative resources, coerced electorates like the military and influence over the all-important TV media.
So the real struggle is what happens afterwards. I’ll be interested to see the size and mood of tomorrow’s opposition protest in Pushkin Square, but even that will be just the start of the process. Will the current, largely negative movement begin to cohere around a positive platform of reforms and leaders, and then create the political machine to build a national campaign? Will Putin crack down (I don’t expect more than some moves against ‘disloyal’ elements of the media)? More to the point, given that he has pledged directly and indirectly to spend on social programs, economic diversification and military modernization, pledges he cannot possibly all fulfill, whom will he disappoint, and what will this mean?
It’s the start of something big. But I’m reminded about one of the common images (or cliches), of tectonic changes. The shifts of continental plates are indeed fundamental in how they reshape the world, but trying to watch them move is rarely dramatic. I suspect much the same can be said about this election. Big Stuff is happening, but that doesn’t always mean gratifyingly quick or dramatic. But there’s still half a day to go, and 24 hours of demos…