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Gaming For 'Love Of Fatherland' As Russia Votes

Russians in the voting booths at Stavropol State University's student hostel during the last presidential election in Russia, in March 2012.
Russians in the voting booths at Stavropol State University's student hostel during the last presidential election in Russia, in March 2012.

MOSCOW -- You’re a low-level Russian public servant who is entrusted on the eve of elections to ensure a high voter turnout within your constituency. Success could mean a promotion; failure could cost you your job.

Bribing voters with cash and busing them from one polling station to another to cast multiple ballots is effective, but illegal. And in this modern age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media, election cheats risk getting caught red-handed.

Can you successfully manipulate the results in your district by ushering people to the polls without being exposed?

It's all part of a humorous new game called Day Of Silence. Election Simulator. Created by the independent Russian news site Mediazona, its premise is rooted in Putin-era history, when Russian authorities have been caught ballot-stuffing, fudging turnout figures, and transporting voters to multiple polling stations to cast several votes in a practice dubbed "carousel voting." All of that in addition to the Kremlin's increasingly tight grip on major media and crippling prosecutions that target dissenters.

But for President Vladimir Putin and his allies, voter turnout is no laughing matter.

State-controlled pollsters show Putin's approval rating at around 80 percent, and he is expected to crush his competition in the carefully managed March 18 presidential election.

But what is less certain -- and of obvious concern to the Kremlin -- is how many voters will actually show up.

Kremlin sources cited in Russian media have said for months that the presidential administration wants to see Putin win 70 percent of the vote with a 70 percent nationwide turnout in hopes of reinforcing his legitimacy ahead of a new six-year term and surpassing the nearly-64 percent support he received in 2012 with a turnout of around 65 percent.

Anything less, some observers argue, could undermine the increasingly assertive international policies that have diverted away precious rubles from social programs.

On March 16, the last day for official campaigning, Putin himself urged his countrymen to go to the polls for the "love of the Fatherland."

"Take advantage of your right to choose the future for our great, beloved Russia," Putin pleaded in a video message on the Kremlin website.

Putin's final stop in a seemingly lackluster campaign marked by few campaign appearances (but no shortage of time on state TV), no real opposition candidate in the running, and widespread voter apathy was expected to be a visit to a medical center in his native St. Petersburg.

Russian officials have been notorious in the past in their exploitation of so-called administrative resources, but it is unclear whether such efforts will be enough to reach the ballyhooed 70-70 pairing the Kremlin is said to desire.

In the campaign's closing days, authorities mounted a sweeping publicity campaign to promote a "holiday-like atmosphere" at polling stations on election day, according to a leaked government document obtained by the Russian RBC news outlet. Vote, they suggest, and you, too, could win.

Carrot And Stick

In cities across Russia, authorities also organizing Photo At The Ballot Box competitions, with prizes to include iPhones and sports equipment for selfies posted to social media like VKontakte or Instagram. In some Siberian cities, organizations are raffling high-ticket items such as a car, an Apple Watch, and a Go Pro camera. In Moscow, voters can get free cancer screening at schools where voting will be held.

While the prizes are modern, the endeavors are hardly new. Rather, the idea of a being awarded a gift in exchange for a vote comes straight from the Soviet playbook, when elections were treated as celebrations, with live music at polling places and cheap food available to voters.

Where the lure of gifts may fail, more aggressive strategies to boost turnout have been employed.

Students across Russia have reportedly been threatened with expulsion from their dormitories if they don’t vote, Politico reported.

"This is not up for discussion, we are going to vote here," an educator at a university in Ulan-Ude, in eastern Siberia, told students in February. The educator warned students that she would "drag you here by the scruff of the neck" if necessary, although she added that they could vote for the candidate of their choice.

The Ulan-Ude incident emerged in an audio recording published on the YouTube channel of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. Arguably Putin's biggest challenger, Navalny was barred from running over a dubious criminal conviction and has urged Russians to boycott the vote.

'Thank You For Shopping. Please Remember To Vote'

The Kremlin has meanwhile dismissed accusations that it is behind major companies' efforts to get out the vote.

The enterprises themselves -- which include state-controlled enterprises like Aeroflot, Russian Railroads, and VTB bank -- have tended to frame such campaigns as reflections of loyalty.

"Russia's largest retailer, Magnit, printed messages to go out and vote on every receipt (and that’s 300 million receipts per month), Russia’s largest banks, Sberbank and VTB, remind voters about the election on their ATM screens and in their mobile apps, Russian Railroads and Aeroflot have election reminders next to where tickets are sold, and Burger King restaurants in Russia remind their customers about the election on the electronic order tablet screens," independent Russian news site The Bell reported.

But will giveaways, free checkups, or even threats of physical violence translate into higher voter turnout?

"You know it is already decided, right?" Anastasia, a 19-year-old university student and Navalny supporter who works as a barista at a Western-style café in central Moscow, told RFE/RL. "When your candidate is not on the ballot, there is no point to voting."

Then she added in a reference to the lure of a free gift in exchange for voting: "I already have an iPhone."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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