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27 Feb, 2008 16:14

In Context blog: Why this election matters

In Context blog: Why this election matters

Many in the media have dismissed Russia's presidential election as a charade and a ritual of pretend democracy. This is a mistake.

The presidential election is clearly not exciting and there is a predictable outcome. But this does not mean the voters don't have a choice. They do have a choice and I fully expect the electorate to act out the following logic: “If is not broken, why fix it?”

Russians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote on their future. There are four candidates on the ballot. One is well known and supported by the very popular President Vladimir Putin. Two are old hands in politics and the fourth is a relative unknown. For the “commentariat” in the West and some in Russia this all means a non-election. However, I submit this election is not about voting for someone, but about what kind of country Russia can and needs to become.

Many claim that Russia's democracy is backsliding. I retort that Russia's democracy is finally taking hold. Democracy is not only an idea, but a process and something that must produce positive outcomes to be valued. During the 1990s the idea of democracy was discredited in Russia. It was associated with chaos, national humiliation, and poverty. Today, democracy is fighting to make a comeback.

Then there is the role of Vladimir Putin in all of this. It is said he plans to succeed himself when he, as is widely expected, becomes prime minister under Medvedev if he is elected president. This may or may not happen. And if it does, then it is just fine with me. However, how many people have considered that Putin, because of his popularity, could have easily had the constitution changed to allow him a third, or even a fourth, term? But he didn't. Why?

Well, I will take the minority position. Putin wants to empower institutions rather than personal ambitions. He knows the next step in Russia's great reform project is to respect the law and make the system of governance work for the people. This project may take another decade or even longer to realize. And if one has listened to Medvedev carefully as of late, he has said as much.

Russia's democracy is not perfect. But where in the world is it? Russia is working with its own democratic toolbox. It doesn't need instruments from others lecturing it. And on Sunday voters are given a real choice: continue the course or vote for the past or for the unknown. The democratic choice will prevail and democracy in Russia will have taken another small, but important, step.