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On The Eve: The Importance of Free and Fair Elections

3 March 2012

A favourite phrase of Russian human rights defender Sergei Kovalev is: ‘Kto v dome khozyain?’ – ‘Who is boss in the house?’ In other words, who has power in Russia? Is it the government (the leadership in the Kremlin/the bureaucracy)? Or is it the public – civil society? In asking this question Kovalev is not questioning the role of government in conducting its legitimate functions. But he is demanding that government should not put itself above the law. He is demanding that governments respect the rights of their citizens. 

In any state with pretentions to democracy, the answer to Kovalev’s question should be: the public. And the ultimate test of this is whether a government submits to its legitimacy being tested through free and fair elections. It is the government’s duty to ensure that the will of the people can be freely expressed in its choice of political leaders. The evidence suggests, however, that Vladimir Putin and his team are not prepared to accept this. The evidence suggests that they seek to manage elections so that they can control who wins and who loses. And not only the final result of the elections (in the sense of a fraudulent count of the vote), but also the electoral process: who is allowed to take part, who has access to the media, what is said in the media, who takes part in demonstrations, and so on – the list of violations of ‘free and fair elections’ is very long. Unfortunately, no winner of an 'unfree and unfair' election of this kind can claim to be a legitimate political leader of a country. On the contrary, they could fairly better be described as having usurped power. 

Why hold elections if you are not prepared to submit to the will of the electorate? Surely this exposes the weakness of Russia's ruling regime. The regime  cannot do without elections, but cannot allow them to be free and fair. Therefore the regime engages in this fraudulent manipulation of the electoral process. In this light, the regime's rhetorical recourse to 'patriotism' is equally fraudulent. The regime lays exclusive claim to patriotism and bolsters the figure of a 'national leader', while effectively coercing Russia's citizens and refusing to submit to the will of the nation as expressed in free and fair elections. 

Today's pyramid of power in Russia would seem to be based on the notion that ultimately the representatives of authority at every level – in the police, the military, in the election commissions, and all public officials - will fulfil unlawful instructions, taking the side of the Kremlin, rather than of the people. So far in the course of these elections we have seen officials, acting on what can only be assumed to be instructions from the Kremlin, exclude candidates from the electoral process, permit bias in the media and curb the expression of independent views, put pressure on independent election monitors, intimidate civic activists, and take other unlawful actions at the behest of the authorities. 

Indeed, so much has been done to make these elections neither free nor fair. Yet these elections may yet acquire a truly historical significance. Russia’s citizens, whether as voters or as participants in the administration of the electoral process, may choose to show that they will no longer tolerate cynical manipulation. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants and public officials may choose to side with the law, with justice and with human rights, and not with unlawful instructions handed down from above. By the very act of exercising their choice in these matters the Russian public may yet do much to make these elections freer and fairer. To be sure, those who have sought to manage these elections also have the right to vote. And on Sunday they will no doubt exercise this right. Yet their votes will be but small in number compared with the millions of others. And the Russian public must show ‘who is boss in the house’.