In Russia, A Presidential Campaign No One Could Have Predicted

Analysis: Vladimir Putin remains the overwhelming favorite Sunday to return to the Kremlin as Russia’s president, following a term as prime minister. Still, with opposition to Putin growing, it was a memorable campaign -- even before it began.

Anti-Putin protests in Moscow. The sign reads:
Anti-Putin protests in Moscow. The sign reads:

MOSCOWFriday was the last day of political campaigning before Russia's presidential elections on Sunday. The ads, television appearances and rallies go silent over the weekend, when campaigning is forbidden. Kommersant's political team looks back at the most interesting episodes from a history-making presidential campaign.

New Playing Field

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Vladimir Putin ran up against massive protests for the first time. The lead up to the presidential elections were accompanied by rallies, sparked largely by anger at alleged voting fraud during parliamentary elections in December. The turnout for the protests, which started the day after the parliamentary elections, surprised even the organizers.

Vladimir Putin answered the protesters in his own manner. He called those protesting against him "monkeys," and compared the movement's symbol - a white ribbon - to a condom. But the protests continued, becoming both larger and increasingly anti-Putin. At one point, the slogan "For Fair Elections' morphed into "Not A Single Vote For Putin."

The governing party also held rallies around the whole country. While those rallies were also numerous, observers noted that many of the attendees had been brought in from all over the country, and were not necessarily there out of political conviction.

It is clear that both the anti-Putin and pro-Putin rallies will continue after the elections. But Vladimir Putin, even if he wins the presidential elections, will face a part of society that is actively opposed to his leadership. One of the most important questions in this election is whether Putin will be prepared for dialogue with his opponents, or whether he will take a much harder line.

New Faces

"United Russia," Putin's party, supported his presidential campaign even before the parliamentary election. He was able to benefit from parliamentary perks, such as being able to register as a candidate without voters' signatures, observers and platform discussions - everything that Putin could share with his party's chair.

Putin's campaign dreamed up an image of a President who represents all Russians, the whole people. Putin tried to reinforce that by enlisting popular figures like the film director Stanislav Govorukhin, who became Putin's campaign chairman, and starting the "All-Russia People's Front," a coalition that is supposed to give Russian politics and Putin new momentum. These tactics turned out well for both Putin and United Russia. In spite of rumors of United Russia's demise, the party's approval rating improved during the campaign.

Where have you gone Dimitri Medvedev?

The elections in 2012 were the first ones since 1991 when the sitting president did not take an active role in the campaign. Dimitri Medvedev, at the head of the United Russia list in the parliamentary elections, has not been active in his support for Vladimir Putin. Stanislav Govorukhin, Putin's campaign chairman, publicly accused the current president, saying "He's just... totally silent." According to Govorukhin, Medvedev could, without breaking any laws, "provide more active support for the person who he put forward as a presidential candidate."

Truth and Monitoring

The 2012 elections were the first ones when trust in the truth of the elections results became almost as important as the candidates and their platforms.

On December 15, Vladimir Putin announced that the complaints about the parliamentary elections were "secondary" and that the most important goal was the upcoming presidential elections. "In order to pull the carpet out from under those who would like to delegitimize the government party," Putin suggested putting web-cams at each of the 95 election districts around Russia to monitor the voting process.

And yet, only those with a special log-in will be able to access the videos, and there were no particular sanctions specified for violations caught by the web-cams. The practice, furthermore, may not even be accepted by courts in case any alleged fraud is filmed.

On December 24, the journalist Leonid Parfenov suggested that voters themselves should come together to monitor the elections. Within a week, 16,000 volunteers had registered on a website to monitor elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the same time, a plethora of other election-monitoring projects and websites sprung up around the country. The projects remain a motley mix, experts say, and more concentrated in urban areas than in the countryside, where there is much more difficulty getting citizen observers.

Race for Second

It is not the first run for many of the opposition presidential candidates. But the goal this time is to capture a larger percentage of the vote then their parties did in the parliamentary elections. While the opposition has not managed to present one candidate to represent the whole anti-Putin movement, most eyes are on political newbie Mikhail Prokhorov, both to see his results in the election and gauge his next political moves.

Read the original article in Russian

Photo - andyindesign

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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