Putin on a show: finding value in March’s Russian election

Putin on a show: finding value in March’s Russian election

The question is not whether Vlad will win but by how much

Vladimir Putin has now run Russia for longer than anyone since Stalin.* It’s all but certain that he will continue to do so after this March’s presidential election. Ladbrokes are offering odds of 1/50 that he wins a fourth full term, which are nonetheless value: probably the shortest-ever odds tipped as such on this site. Looked at another way, it might only be a 2% return in about two months but that’s a lot more than you’d get in a bank – though there is the capital risk that he might fall under a bus.

That possibility, of some external event intervening to physically prevent Putin from standing, is the most realistic scenario by which someone else wins – but even then, it’s a remote one: he’s not the kind of politician to spend half an hour presenting himself as a target, speaking on the stump. The chance of anyone beating him at the ballot box can be almost entirely discounted: no other party’s candidate has the organisation to challenge United Russia and if they did, the considerable structural advantages the incumbent possesses would be brought to bear.

However, 1/50 shots are hardly exciting. Of more interest is the associated market on Putin’s vote share. Such opinion polls as there’ve been give him gigantic leads. The raw figures routinely give him between 55-70 per cent, though once you exclude Don’t Knows and Won’t Votes, these can rise as high as 90%.

Despite Ladbrokes’ offer of 25/1 for him to win more than 90%, I’m not at all tempted. I don’t trust the polls, not least because I don’t trust the answers that people give in a society which has been long accustomed to surveillance and to the need to give the right answer to authority.

I also don’t think that Putin will want to win by the sort of margins that look like his was a rigged election. He is a realpolitik practitioner par exellence and will be well aware that his power comes not from the size of his majority but from his control of the government machine. All he needs from the people is for them to return him without establishing any credible alternative; beyond that, retaining a veneer of democracy serves a useful purpose both internationally and domestically – a purpose that would be undermined by numbers that weren’t credible.

Putin’s previous winning vote shares were 53.4 (2000), 71.9 (2004), and 63.6 (2012). In between, Medvedev won with 71.2% in 2008. These are probably a better guide. I’d discount the first result, which occurred when the Communist Party remained a genuine force and when the country was still suffering from the Wild East of the Yeltsin years – and before Putin had cracked down on civil freedoms.

On that basis, the 4/1 offered on a 70-80 per cent vote share looks to have most value to me. Russia’s success in Syria, the seizure of the Crimea and more stable domestic situation should produce some genuine popularity – and while that will be far from the determining factor in the election, it will matter in terms of where in the ‘acceptable range’ the result ends up. Having said that, cautious gamblers might want a punt on 60-70 at 5/4 as well, which taken together gives a very wide range at odds of about 4/7, if evenly balanced. Hopefully, that should leave the punter the winner. Either way, Putin will be.

David Herdson

* This is definitional. Putin is close to completing his third full term as president, from 2000-2008 and then again since 2012. He also served for three months before the 2000 election, after Yeltsin’s resignation: a total of almost exactly 14 years so far. However, it’s hard not to regard him as the dominant figure during the Medvedev presidency too, when Putin was Prime Minister; Medvedev having been a trusted lieutenant of Putin since the early 1990s, and who loyally stepped aside in 2012 to allow Putin to resume the senior office. If added in, that takes Putin’s service to a touch over 18 years. Against which, Leonid Brezhnev was without question the Soviet Union’s leader during the 1970s and through to his death in November 1982 but the start of his true leadership is harder to date. It could be argued to be October 1964, when Khrushchev was overthrown (on the same day as the UK general election, coincidentally), which would exceed Putin’s service whichever definition is chosen – though only by weeks if it’s the longer one. However, in reality, the post-Khrushchev regime was a collective and Brezhnev didn’t establish clear pre-eminence over the likes of Kosygin and Podgorny until the late 1960s. On that basis, Putin has already passed him on at least one, and perhaps both, measures of his own leadership.

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