Maia blogged on the curious situation in Russia. Despite Putin’s and United Russia’s overwhelming popularity, the government seems intent on ensuring an even more crushing victory for the party. Now Luke Harding and Tom Parfitt of The Guardian report on major “fraud, intimidation, and bribery” in the run up to the election.

They also offer some possible answers as to why the Russian government seems intent on manipulating an election that United Russia should be assured of winning.

1. Putin’s popularity may be smoke and mirrors:

The president’s personal popularity remains high. But support for United Russia is less solid. Independent experts say the party’s true ratings are around 35% – well below the 55% figure suggested by state-controlled opinion polls.

In a leak to Russian media this week, one senior election official said that regional governors had been told to deliver at least 65% of the vote for Putin’s party, an “unrealistically high” total that could be achieved only through electoral fraud and by compelling people to vote.

“The elections are going to be falsified,” said Mikhail Delyagin, an economist and the director of Moscow’s Institute on Globalisation Problems. “The elections that took place in the Soviet Union were less falsified than this one.”

Of course, even if Putin “true approval” is at 35%, the opposition is so disorganized that, even without suppression and manipulation, they could hardly be expected to mount much of a challenge to United Russia. Thus:

2. The writers endorse the theory that the government wants to ratchet up the numbers to justify establishing Putin as leader-for-life:

Analysts say the pressure is designed to ensure a resounding win for the United Russia party and for Putin, who heads its party list. The victory would give him a public mandate to maintain ultimate power in the country as “National Leader” despite being unable to stand for a third term as president in March. […]

The Kremlin has cast Sunday’s State Duma vote as a referendum on Putin. Although Putin is obliged to step down as president next May, a landslide victory may be used to legitimise his return to power, possibly as early as the summer. […]

Putin’s decision to associate himself with United Russia’s election campaign – and to stand as a candidate at the top of the party’s federal list – has contributed to the scale of the fraud, analysts said.

“The scale of pressure is due to nervousness within the Kremlin administration since it announced that this is no longer a parliamentary election but a referendum on Putin,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said. Lukyanov said he believed the amount of fraud on polling day would be small. “This is normal in contemporary advanced authoritarian systems. They are smart enough to organise the vote in quite a proper and correct way,” he said.

This last point is analytically interesting. Political analysts have paid increasing attention to so-called “electoral authoritarianism” over the years. And there’s good reason to believe that the Russian Government, like many quasi-democratic regimes, has been adapting to the recent failures of similar regimes.

In other words, making things difficult for poll workers, and harassing the opposition, represents a perfectly rational strategy for avoiding any risk of what’s been going on around Russia’s periphery in countries like Ukraine and Georgia.

Mark Beissinger, by the way, has a great article (behind pay wall) on this in Perspectives on Politics: “Structure and Example in Modular Political Phenomena: The Diffusion of Bulldozer/Rose/Orange/Tulip Revolutions.”

Now, the Russian Federation is, by my estimate, at zero danger of falling prey to a “colored revolution” in the immediate future. But why take any chances, particularly if the regime aims to produce such an overwhelming mandate that it can “democratically” justify alterations in its de jure or de facto constitutional structure?