Putin's mandate

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

With Vladimir Putin scoring a big victory for a second term in the Russian presidential election, all attention is now on the reform agenda of the increasingly powerful President.

in Moscow

IN the March 14 presidential election in Russia, Vladimir Putin sailed through to a second term. Considering Putin's popularity, the result came as no surprise. Analysts believe that the public support, a supportive Duma dominated by pro-Kremlin parties, and the bureaucracy-dominated Cabinet which was appointed just days before the election, give the President a unique opportunity to undertake ground breaking reforms in the economic and administrative spheres. However, they also fear that this concentration of power in the President's office could lead to authoritarianism. Whichever way the country moves, the victory does offer Putin a historic opportunity to influence Russia's future and give the West something to worry about.

According to the preliminary results announced by the Russian Central Election Commission, Putin garnered 71 per cent of the votes cast. The Communist Party candidate came in a distant second with 13.8 per cent of the vote. Though a much lower vote share than in previous elections, this still surprised analysts who had virtually written off the party, particularly after its poor showing in the Duma polls in end 2003 and its choice of a rather insignificant candidate. Sergei Glazyiev, who contested as an independent, finished third with 4.1 per cent of the vote, and Irina Khakamada, the pro-West liberal candidate, finished with 3.9 per cent of the vote. On the whole the Opposition netted 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts consider this a positive indicator. Further, the voter turnout was 64.3 per cent, which was surprise after a rather insipid campaign.

Putin went on air late on March 14 night. He said: "I promise you that all the democratic achievements of our people will certainly be safeguarded and guaranteed. At the same time, we will not be resting on what we have achieved. We will bolster the multi-party system. We will bolster civil society and do everything to ensure media freedom." He further stressed that he would pay attention to the modernisation of the economy as well as reform in the social and administrative spheres.

Political observers in Moscow are already debating the likely direction Putin's reformist agenda will take in his second term. At a post-election press conference, Putin hinted at reforming the presidential administration. The functioning of the body is to be reviewed. Earlier, with a powerful Cabinet in place, the presidential administration was empowered with extra powers to the extent that the functions of one overlapped those of the other. However, with the recently formed Cabinet being in tune with Putin's reformist agenda, the presidential administration could afford to lose some of the functions that duplicate the Cabinet's work. This does not mean that it would be diminished in its power.

Alexei Zudin of the Centre of Political Technologies said: "Most likely, the presidential administration will be relieved of technical functions duplicating the powers of the government. The administration acquired these functions in Boris Yeltsin's era, and it retained them under Putin. The presidential administration was both the curator and the controller of the government, which has not always been compatible with presidential power. However, such compatibility has been achieved, the government and the President speak the same language. The presidential administration can now be relieved of technical functions and its political functions can be strengthened."

In the economic sphere, significant reforms are expected. By retaining his top Economic Ministers, Putin, it would seem, has tried to allay Western concerns and show his inclination towards reform. A restructuring of the monopolies could be on the cards, as also the much-needed tax and social sector reforms. Economic analysts are of the opinion that a change in the tax laws is impossible without reforming the social sector. They feel that the single social tax might be reduced by 1 to 2 per cent, as would some other taxes. However, taxes on the oil and energy industry are likely to be increased, though indications are that the burden would not be allowed to fall on the common people. The spring budget is eagerly awaited, as that will be a clear indicator of Putin's agenda. Market watcher Roland Nash of Renaissance Capital said recently: "The next two big political questions will be the publication of the government's reform agenda and the next stage in the push against big business."

DESPITE the expectations on "reforms", not everybody is satisfied with the way this election was conducted. European observer groups have opined that the presidential election fell short on maintaining democratic standards. Julian Peel Yates, head of the Observer Mission from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said that the campaign and election "overall did not adequately reflect principles necessary for a healthy democratic election process". Yates added that while the March 14 election was "generally well administered" it lacked "vibrant political discourse and meaningful pluralism".

Both the OSCE and the delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have indicated in their preliminary reports that the state-controlled media displayed a "clear bias" in favour of Putin and as a result the challengers were unable to get their message across to the public. They also indicated that regional officials promoted Putin's campaign and hampered the normal campaign proceedings. They said that reports of election-related abuse by officials were many and they "reflect a lack of democratic culture, accountability and responsibility".

Observers also reported irregularities in the counting of votes. Rudolf Bindig, head of the Parliamentary Assembly delegation of the Council of Europe, said that the vote-counting process "was evaluated as bad or very bad". He alleged that several cases had been found of election committees not using proper sorting and counting procedures in Moscow, the southern Krasnodar region and far-eastern Khaborovsk. There has also been "strong evidence" of ballot box stuffing in certain polling stations, according to some observers.

Even United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice expressed their concern over the conduct of the election. Powell was unhappy about the lack of openness in the election and also about a certain "level of authoritarianism that was creeping back" into the Russian system. He said: "Russians have to understand that to have full democracy of the kind that the international community will recognise, you've got to let candidates have all access to the media that the President has on Fox News Sunday." The Kremlin said in reply that Russia's election campaign had been conducted "in strict conformity with the election law". The statement also said: "Russian voters already have significant experience in democratic elections and don't need suggestions from anyone, even less so from representatives of a country that has clear flaws in its election procedures."

Despite the charges, the fact remains that Putin won primarily because of his overwhelming popularity. Analysts differ on Putin's brand of "managed democracy", where the state continues to play subtly nurse to democratise Russia. Some feel that the President is following a soft brand of authoritarianism, which he will consolidate in his second term and which could lead to a greater concentration of power and the growth of dictatorial tendencies. Others feel that Putin's brand of "managed democracy" is essential for Russia where democratic institutions and practices are nascent and require a longer period for development. They are hopeful that in the future real democracy will evolve out of Putin's experiment. Putin himself has hinted at this time and again.

Yet, analysts agree on one fact - that the December Duma elections and the just concluded presidential election have made Putin an extremely powerful President. He is in a position to undertake far-reaching "reform" in the economic, political, social and administrative spheres.

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