Authoritarian Capitalism: Evaluating Economic Voting and Public Perception in Russia

Reviewed by Alice Hu

Why did United Russia, the political party of Vladimir Putin, lose 14 percent of its seats in the State Duma following the 2011 elections? University of Michigan student Bogdan Belei contends in “Authoritarian Capitalism: Evaluating Economic Voting and Public Perception in Russia” that the traditional economic voting narrative—which theorizes that the public votes candidates into office according to perceived economic influence—fails to explain this drastic loss of representation. Instead, the Russian electorate was reacting against political grievances.

Belei refers to the Russian state as an example of authoritarian capitalism, under which the public sacrifices political freedoms in exchange for effective (state-sponsored) economic control. Unsurprisingly, such a system tends to thrive during times of economic prosperity—putting officials in a rut when the 2008 global financial crisis hit Russia. In response, the central government launched into a spending spree, increasing funding to regional governments, raising pensions, and funneling funds into military arms production.

By 2011, and certainly by the vote in December of that year, the Russian economy had apparently recovered, and so had public perception: in one poll, many respondents revealed that they regarded the economic standings of their households and of the country at large as just as great—if not better—than before the crisis. So it was not a rotten economy that drove a significant number of voters to reject United Russia and the political status quo. Belei offers another explanation: using “rate of internet access” as a proxy for political knowledge, exposure to independent sources of information, and opportunity to disseminate political knowledge, he notes that in regions with higher levels of internet access, United Russia saw greater of a loss. Likewise, in areas with higher rural populations (associated with lower rates of internet access), United Russia was likely to see less of a loss. Thus, Belei concludes that voters approached the ballot in 2011 with political frustrations on their minds.

Belei acknowledges that this political dissatisfaction likely manifested itself in part due to the 2008 financial crisis, which illuminated how fragile the Russian economy could be. After all, as Belei notes, many Russians associate “democracy” not with concepts like freedom of speech, but rather with economic prosperity, suggesting that the public regards producing economic viability as the primary function of the democratic state. Yet, considering that the Russian economy in 2011 was not anything voters would have balked at, Belei rejects the conventional economic voting theory. Ultimately, he instead offers a compelling alternate narrative centered around the somewhat novel view of Russian voters as first citizens, and only then consumers—a view well-supported by solid statistical analysis.

See the full paper here!

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