For the last few weeks, the Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump, has been talking a lot about how the Nov. 8 election is rigged against him. In fact, he sounds convinced that the entire campaign season is rigged in favor of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. These are serious charges, or they would be if Mr. Trump had any idea what he was talking about.
Nobody in the American political establishment is happy about Mr. Trump’s wild-eyed accusations of voter fraud and media conspiracies because they understand that it undermines their own credibility as leaders in a democracy. This is exactly why my country’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, is so delighted by Mr. Trump’s charges.
In power for 16 years now, Mr. Putin and his global propaganda machine aggressively promote the idea that democracy is a chaotic mess that only the hero Putin can save Russia from falling into. Social media is flooded by Kremlin-funded trolls ranting about the illegitimacy of the American election process and warning of the potential for violence. To have a major party nominee in America repeating this propaganda is beyond Mr. Putin’s wildest dreams. Mr. Trump even echoes Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rationales, presenting himself as the only one who can rescue America.
I know a few things about rigged elections. I know what it’s like to have the overwhelming power of the state used against me to make a mockery of the democratic process. I know what it means to have my opinion censored while every major media outlet is dedicated to vilifying me and my colleagues. I know what happens when a conspiracy of public and private interests forms to intimidate, harass, prosecute and even kill in order to preserve a monopoly on power.
I know these things well because I learned them the hard way during my years as a political opposition leader in Mr. Putin’s Russia. None of these things are happening to Donald Trump.
After I retired from professional chess in 2005, I helped form an opposition coalition, known as Other Russia, to protest Mr. Putin’s increasingly dictatorial regime. According to the Russian Constitution, Mr. Putin was unable to stand for a second re-election as president in 2008, and it wasn’t clear what would happen to a power structure that had become completely centered on one man. If Mr. Putin ignored the Constitution completely and simply stayed on openly as a dictator, he risked alienating the Group of 8 world leaders who had agreed to pretend he was a fellow democrat.
The Other Russia opposition coalition had live debates, policy papers, platforms — all the things that were absent from the official elections, where the only thing that mattered was who had the Kremlin’s blessing. Rather to my surprise, in 2007 I was the winner of the national primary to choose the coalition’s presidential candidate.
Once I had been selected in a real election that wasn’t official, it was time for me to participate in an official election that was completely fake.
In order to do this, I had to jump through the official and unofficial hoops that had been put in place to prevent unapproved candidates from making it onto a ballot. Two million signatures were needed from all over the country in just one month, a task made even more herculean by the sheer size of Russia. A nominating congress had to be held, an apparently simple chore that became impossible when no hotel would rent a suitable space to us. Even American-owned hotel chains mysteriously canceled our reservations.
While I traveled across the country to campaign, we would find venues suddenly closed for repairs, our flights canceled, our meetings shut down by the police. Nor did I quite manage to stay out of jail, spending five days in a Moscow cell for participating in an “unauthorized rally.”
Rigging an election isn’t only a matter of stuffing ballot boxes. It is not even that “the people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do,” as the apocryphal quote attributed to Joseph Stalin has it. By the time the voting begins, the game is already over. Anyone who opposes the regime — from peaceful street protesters to the wealthiest man in the country — is targeted. The Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent a decade in prison for daring to support political groups outside of Mr. Putin’s control.
The fraud that does occur on Election Day is more about showing loyalty and getting the numbers just right to keep up appearances. Busloads of official voters go from polling station to polling station in a tradition we even have a name for: a “carousel.” Sheaves of ballots are dumped into urns while polling officials stand in the way to block the view. Sometimes, the excessive zeal of apparatchiks produces returns of more than 100 percent, as happens regularly in Russian regions like Chechnya.
To this day, I do not like the title “former Russian presidential candidate” because I knew at the start that my name would never appear on a ballot. The former prime minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov was allowed to progress one step further in his own independent run in 2008 — before being disqualified two months later.
The only candidates allowed to run in the presidential election against Mr. Putin’s handpicked successor, the former prime minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, were the same token Communist and the same token nationalist who had been running in every election since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Medvedev got 71.2 percent, a tactful few tenths of a percentage point less than Mr. Putin received in 2004. Four years later, Mr. Medvedev again switched desks with Mr. Putin, who hadn’t left power for a second regardless of his official title of prime minister. President Obama called Mr. Putin to congratulate him on his election victory, once again, as president.
This is the modern dictatorship, savvy at using the free world’s terms and technology for its own ends. And when fake elections at home aren’t enough, an aggressive campaign of intimidation and disinformation abroad can be very useful. The Russian news leads every day with Mr. Trump and WikiLeaks and how they are supposedly exposing the corrupt reality of American democracy. Mr. Putin can no longer pretend to be a democratic leader, so his goal is to drag everyone else down to his level — and he is doing it with Mr. Trump’s help.
A democracy is as strong as its people believe it to be. It cannot be destroyed from the outside, only from within.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and the author, most recently, of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 30, 2016, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: I Know a Rigged Election. This Isn’t One.