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RUSSIA: Putin Remains Leading Candidate in Presidential Elections

MOSCOW , Feb 1 2012 (IPS) - Election season in Russia promises to be stormy, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin emerges as the leading candidate in the presidential race scheduled for March 4 and unresolved issues of voting fraud and voter manipulation spark massive protests amongst opposition groups.

Current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings reached 50 percent ahead of the March 4 presidential race. Credit: Ria Novosti

Current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings reached 50 percent ahead of the March 4 presidential race. Credit: Ria Novosti

The Kremlin-friendly VTsIOM (All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion) said that Putin’s approval rating has reached 50 percent, while the independent Levada Centre pollster reported only 42 percent support for the current Prime Minister.

Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Centre, told IPS, “The key reason for Putin’s rising popularity stems primarily from an improved development programme that forms part of his (election) campaign.”

Furthermore, ever since the Central Election Commission released the final approved list of qualified candidates for the elections, most Russians have been struck by their lack of options for a suitable leader to run the country.

The four candidates were nominated by their respective political parties: Putin, the founding member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party; Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party; Sergei Mironov of the Fair Russia Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky from the Liberal Democratic Party.

After submitting over two million valid signatures in his favour, 46-year-old billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov became the fifth registered candidate and the only self-nominee to run in the race on March 4, which will take place at 90,000 polling stations across Russia and several hundred polling stations in 147 foreign countries.

The new president will be elected for an extended six-year term.

According to Grazhdankin, the United Russia Party’s ability to secure majority seats in the State Duma (the lower house of legislators), deep cracks in the post-Soviet political system and the lack of unity between opposition groups have essentially paved the way for Putin’s victory in the upcoming presidential race.

United Russia plans to meet with political parties, opposition leaders and civic groups to discuss how to restore public trust in the country’s elections, State Duma deputy speaker Oleg Morozov said.

“We are carrying out intensive consultation with all parliamentary and non-parliamentary bodies and various civil society institutions interested in fair elections in order to begin open public dialogue and understand what lawmakers, politicians and civil society institutions should do to restore public trust in elections,” Morozov said.

All registered Russian parties, both parliamentary and non-parliamentary, as well as some opposition figures and experts have confirmed their participation in these discussions.

Morozov said he hoped the public movement in support of fair elections, created early January by a group of liberal public figures, would also join the dialogue.

Putin himself has embarked on a nationwide political campaign, meeting various groups across the political spectrum including trade unionists, women’s rights groups, industry directors, regional administrations, sports groups and students, in an effort to seed his profile deeply in the voter base.

Professor Sergei Guriev, rector of the New Economic School (NES), an independent research institution, told IPS, “The government is divided between winning in the first round and in the runoff. The tradeoff is straightforward. A victory in the latter will be more legitimate but will make it clear that Putin is much weaker than he was (during the last two elections) when there was no runoff.”

“If they want to win in the first round, there will be a lot of fraud. And given the level of (public) outrage against corruption, this will completely undermine (the Party’s) legitimacy,” he added.

The authorities’ unwillingness to allow peaceful protests and Putin’s inability to reign in his subordinates’ unstoppable urge to over-count votes will likely exacerbate the problem and large scale corruption will be well documented by independent observers, he added.

“Finally, it is no longer clear that Putin could win an honest election (meaning an election with free media, free campaigning and live debates) against Alexei Navalny,” Guriev concluded, referring to the 35-year-old lawyer who has emerged on the Russian political scene as a fierce champion of people’s power and the need for change in the political establishment.

According to Yelena Shestopal, head of the chair of sociology and psychology of politics at the Moscow State University, years of holding top posts in the government have made Putin complacent with being out of reach of critics.

“Putin is not used to acting in conditions of competition – he is a man with definite views and with a clear inner logic, as a result of which he makes concrete decisions irrespective of the regime.”

“Putin believes in his predestination, almost mystical, that it is he who is going to get the country out of this impasse. And of course, the present situation is very difficult and uncomfortable for him but the fact that he is not losing heart shows that he is a real leader,” Shestopal said.

Many experts and researchers have repeatedly called for political reforms in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics, and strongly urged Putin and his administration to take steps toward reforming the entire political system such that it adheres to democratic values.

But Christopher Walker, vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House, told IPS, “Given the track record of the current leadership in Russia and the depth of corruption in the country, it will be enormously difficult for current power-holders to undertake meaningful reforms from within.”

Citing the most recent Freedom House analysis, he characterized Russian democracy “as a consolidated politically authoritarian system.”

Walker concluded, “the development of democratic accountability in Russia in recent years has been suppressed, which explains, in significant part, why ordinary Russians are more actively expressing their discontent.”

Mass anti-government rallies have spread across Russia following the December parliamentary elections that the opposition claims were slanted in favor of Putin’s United Russia Party and more demonstrations are planned for next month in the run-up to the election.

Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, a researcher from the Russian Academy of Sciences, together with many other intellectual elites and middle-class Russians interviewed by IPS for this story, believe one fact: it’s explicitly clear that, social unrest notwithstanding, no other leader – from the left, right or centre of the political spectrum – has emerged as serious competition, making it absolutely clear that Putin remains the leading political figure in the country.

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