A few weeks ago, Boris Gryzlov, the Chairman of the United Russia party, made an interesting, if somewhat cryptic, statement. When asked by the Itar-Tass "whether United Russia would support a candidate favored by Putin or nominate its own candidate", Mr. Gryzlov answered:
“… both options are possible and they do not run counter each other."
Gryzlov’s statement went almost unnoticed, and this is unfortunate because he might have spelled out the algorithm whereby the next Russian president will be elected. The key words here are:
"… and they do not run counter each other."
What Gryzlov seems to be saying is that Putin’s candidate will be nominated by United Russia.
Putin’s critics have long charged that he’s going to “appoint” his successor, but they never have articulated the mechanism of such an "appointment." The Russian Constitution doesn’t provide for the "appointment" of the president; instead, it calls for the latter being elected in a direct national vote. It is therefore more correct to say that Putin may “nominate” his preferred candidate. The consensus is that, given Putin’s popularity, the nominated candidate will automatically win the election.
The law on presidential elections, however, doesn’t give Putin any special legal standing even in the nomination process. Putin would have to act as a private citizen, and as such, he will first have to organize an initiative group to nominate a candidate. The initiative group will then proceed to collect two million supportive signatures with a razor-thin margin of error.
There is no doubt, of course, that any initiative group created with Putin’s blessing will have no trouble in collecting the required number of valid signatures. But why bother? The nomination of Putin’s preferred candidate can be easily achieved through the political party mechanism.
The new law on political parties gives the incumbent, i.e. represented in the Duma, parties a number of preferences over their non-incumbent counterparts. In particular, they can nominate a presidential candidate without going through the hassle and expense of signature collection. The incumbent political parties therefore create the most convenient vehicle for the nomination process.
Already, the leaders of the Communist and Liberal Democratic parties, Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky have announced their intentions to run for the presidency in March 2008. The odds are that both parties will be in the next Duma following the elections in December, so both Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky will easily be registered as candidates.
It seems only logical that the two pro-presidential parties, United Russia and Just Russia (whose presence in the next Duma is all but assured), will also nominate one candidate each, giving Putin an opportunity to advance his preferred candidate(s). All Putin will have to do is to “endorse” his choice by approving – for example, during his next annual news conference – of the decision made by one or the other party (or both).
During the campaign that preceded the March 11 regional parliamentary elections, one non-Duma party after another was stumbling over the process of signature collection, while the four incumbent parties were sailing through the registration process. There is every reason to believe that the same pressure will be applied against any “non-incumbent” candidate during the presidential campaign. It, therefore, looks increasingly likely that the number of candidates in the March 2008 presidential election will be equal to the number of political parties represented in the fifth Duma.
Also published on Johnson’s Russia List (http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/2007-91-6.cfm) and Russia Profile (http://www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=CDI+Russia+Profile+List&articleid=a1176928479)