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Russia wants change

The Russian Journal

By Otto Latsis

April 03, 2000

Shortly before the presidential elections, on March 23—25, the Agency for Regional Political Studies (ARPI) carried out another routine sociological survey. This gives us a chance to look at how reliable these types of surveys are and ascertain what mood voters were in as they went to the polls.

Sixty-eight percent of voters said they would definitely go and vote. Actual turnout was 68.88 percent. The forecasts, then, were highly accurate, though many politicians had been worried about turnout, fearing that voters would say they’d vote and then not do it when the day came.

The survey showed Putin poised to take 50.7 percent of the vote, but he ended up with more than 52 percent. The difference falls within the acceptable statistical margin of error, the result – a first round victory for Putin, was predicted accurately.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was predicted to get 26.9 percent of the vote and ended up with 29.3 percent – also a fairly accurate result. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky wasn’t so lucky, promised 9.6 percent by the surveys and ending up with only 5.8 percent.

Something the sociologists didn’t predict happened in the last days before the elections – perhaps the last-minute attacks unleashed on Yavlinsky by some media and presidential candidates took their toll. Or perhaps Yavlinsky’s potential voters are also those most likely to suddenly change their minds right at the ballot box. Only 59 percent of voters polled had already definitely made up their minds. Yavlinsky had been hoping to make it into a second round, but sociologists gave him no hope of that.

Asked what they thought about Putin as a candidate, 20 percent said they fully supported him and thought him the best candidate. Fourteen percent hoped he would bring order to the country and 12 percent supported him because they approved of his action in Chechnya. Ten percent said they supported Putin only because they didn’t like any of the other candidates. Seventeen percent said they didn’t really support him, and 12 percent didn’t support him at all.

The fact that not so many of those surveyed supported Putin because of his action in Chechnya throws doubt on the widespread theory that Putin’s popularity rests only his offensive in the rebel republic. More likely, recent improvements in the economic situation and social sphere have had a greater impact on voters than is commonly thought.

This is backed up by replies to a question on the results of operations in Chechnya. Most voters were skeptical on this count. Fifty-two percent think that even if the authorities say they’ve achieved a victory, some of the rebels will escape and continue fighting a partisan war. Twenty percent think the operations haven’t achieved their aims, and soldiers and civilians have made sacrifices in vain, and only 12 percent think the rebels have been crushed and victory achieved.

Another interesting question in the survey asks whether votes will be counted correctly or whether results will be falsified. Forty percent thought results would be falsified, 36 percent said votes would be counted correctly and 24 percent didn’t know.

When asked whether Putin would continue Yelstin’s policies if elected or whether he would change direction, 39 percent expected change while 36 percent said he would continue Yeltsin's course. Twenty-five percent didn’t know.

Voters’ answers also give some indication as to what kind of direction or style of government they’d like to see. When asked if there were situations where the country needed a strong and authoritative leader, 42 percent said the country always needed a "strong hand," 30 percent said it was necessary to concentrate all power in one figure at the moment and 17 percent said one person should not have all the power in his hands.

These answers somewhat contradict replies to an earlier survey carried out by the same agency. That survey asked voters which quality they thought was most important in a president. Most of those surveyed said the president should be, above all, decent. After that, he should be intelligent and knowledgeable, then honest; and only in sixth and seventh place were decisive and tough.

This suggests that public opinion on very general political issues can’t always be taken as an absolute truth. The public, like politicians, thinks things over and has its doubts. But the majority of voters are hoping for and expecting changes of whatever nature to take place in the country’s life.

By Otto Latsis