A one-horse race

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Vladimir Putin's presidency is all set to roll on to a second term, thanks to his "managed democracy" and successful incumbency and the disarray in the Opposition ranks.

in Moscow

THE campaign for the presidential election in Russia, which is under way, is proving to be one of a kind, marked as it is by President Vladimir Putin's distinct brand of "managed democracy". The result of the election is almost pre-determined; there is no doubt that Putin is going to come out victorious. In fact, there is no room for any last-minute surprises. An opinion poll conducted recently by VTSIOM, Russia's leading poll agency, found that if elections are held today, Putin will win by a margin of 79 per cent of the vote and his nearest rival will get just 4 per cent of the vote.

Putin's soaring popularity is a result of the successful policies followed by his government, which have helped lend a measure of both political and economic stability to Russia. Putin's reformist economic policy has brought dividends, and right now Russia's economy is booming. The reining in of the oil-rich oligarchs, especially the arrest of Mikhael Khodorkovsky, a leading tycoon, has gone down well with the public (Frontline, December 5, 2003). Above all, Putin has managed to provide the man on the street with a degree of security and confidence. Today Russians feel that the economic and political chaos of the 1990s is behind them.

However, there is no doubt that the current campaign, just as the campaign for the Duma elections of December 2003, has been planned and is conducted in accordance with the regime's policy of "managed democracy".

The dilemmas faced currently by the "political technologists" of the Kremlin are, first, keeping the public's interest in the presidential election alive and getting a decent voter turnout and secondly getting enough candidates to run, so as to lend the election some credibility. The dilemma is aptly worded by, Andrei Piontkovsky, Director of the Strategic Research Centre, who said in a recent interview to a news agency: "The presidential administration is in a difficult situation. It currently has to solve two absolutely different tasks that require two contrary strategies. The worst thing is to prevent an attendance below 50 per cent. This requires `piling up' as many candidates of some content as possible." He added: "On the other hand, there is a danger of excessive zeal. If the President, with his enormous popularity rating, gains less than 50 per cent, then these candidates would be doing him a disservice. The way out of this situation is unclear."

Interestingly, neither Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party (CPRF), nor Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the extreme rightwing Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), nor for that matter Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal party Yabloko, is contesting. This is a rather peculiar development, as they have contested the presidential poll in the past.

Take for instance the candidate fielded by the Communist Party, Nikolai Kharitonov. A former Soviet farm director, he is a relatively unknown member of the party. Moscow-based analysts are of the opinion that the Communist Party has fallen in line with the Kremlin's wishes and fielded a weak candidate, who is no threat to Putin. This is a result of the circumstances in which the party finds itself after its rout in the Duma elections (Frontline, January 2). The party won less than 12 per cent of the parliamentary seats, and this has resulted in a massive financial and organisational crisis for it. Despite the fact that until recently the CPRF was the only Opposition party in Russia with a good organisation and a strong regional network, today its very existence seems threatened. Until very recently, the first secretaries of the party's prominent branches were Duma members and the party was kept afloat by their influence. However, this arrangement has fallen apart and the party's influence both in the regions and at the centre has been badly affected. Further, after its defeat the party's financiers have disappeared. Thus analysts aver that the party is fighting to survive and may have chosen to support Putin covertly by fielding a relatively unknown candidate.

Even more glaring is the case of the Kremlin's allies. Zhirinovsky, the tawdry head of the LDPR, had more than once voiced his desire to stand as a candidate. Yet he has taken a back seat; his party has fielded Zhirinovsky's former bodyguard, Oleg Malyshkin. The latter's only claim to fame is his propensity to enter into fistfights during political debates on television, as he did last November. Even Malyshkin's mother is sceptical about his chances of victory. She told a television channel recently: "Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is, I think, a good President. We don't need any better."

If the LDPR's candidate is a nonentity then Sergei Mironov's candidature is unbelievable. Mironov, is the current Chairman of the Federation Council, the Upper House of the Russian Parliament, and he is also a leader of the Russian Party of Life. He is supposed to be an ally and friend of Putin. Analysts are of the opinion that Mironov's move is nothing short of a show of support for Putin and will later be rewarded. Mironov himself has been quoted in the media as saying: "When a battle is entered by a leader, who is trusted, he shouldn't be left alone in the battle - one must stand by his side." He added: "We have said repeatedly that we support the President's course, but we must demonstrate that the President is not alone."

This leaves just a few daring independents in the fray. Irina Khakamada, the only female candidate, supports a pro-Western reform agenda. Khakamada, a former leader of one of Russia's liberal parties, the Union of Right Forces, is contesting as an independent. She is not supported by her party and had lost her seat in the parliamentary elections. Khakamada is adding colour to an otherwise lacklustre campaign by her vocal criticism of Putin. She has accused him of covering up the truth about the security forces' handling of a 2002 raid by Chechen rebels on a Moscow theatre, which left 130 people dead, and about the 1999 apartment building bombings in the capital. However, Khakamada is contesting more to register her protest than to win. She hopes to lose with dignity, gaining enough votes to register her presence as a promising liberal opposition leader. Khakamada recently told the media in Moscow that "for me, the main thing is to come in second".

However, the most promising candidate is yet another independent, Sergei Glazyiev, a leader of the Rodina (Homeland) bloc, which did rather well in the parliamentary elections by slicing heavily into the Communist vote bank. Glazyiev has the advantage of being relatively young, just 42 years of age, and is an upwardly mobile economist. A former functionary of the Communist Party, he broke away before the Duma elections and formed the Rodina bloc. Currently, Glazyiev's party is not backing him, but he is the only candidate to have come up with a serious alternative development programme. He advocates the speeding up of structural changes that are necessary to free the Russian economy from its over-dependence on the raw material and energy sectors. Simultaneously, he supports a systematic increase in the taxation directed against the oil companies and other concerns yielding high profits. He further adds that this would result in extra flows to the state budget, which could be used to provide social security to needy sections. Analysts are of the opinion that Glazyiev is the man to watch. Of course, recent opinion polls do not give him more than 4 per cent of the vote.

The preliminary list of candidates was drawn up on January 28. According to the Russian system, independent candidates have to submit two million signatures of supporters by the deadline, in order to win approval for their candidature. Parties within the Duma are expected to nominate their candidates. In all, seven preliminary candidates have been accepted - two nominated from within the Duma and four independents, apart from the President. The two nominated ones are Kharitonov and Malyshkin. The four independent candidates are Khakamada, Glazyiev; ex-Duma Speaker and Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin, who is allegedly a close friend of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and Sergei Mironov. Of the 10 politicians who had announced their candidature only seven have made it to the preliminary registration with the Election Commission. By March 8, the commission will give its final verdict, after examining the signature lists of the independent candidates. It remains to be seen whether the commission will clear the candidatures of Khakamada and Glazyiev. There is also the strong possibility of candidates withdrawing over the next couple of weeks.

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