If I had to visualize the results of the Dec. 4 Duma elections in Russia, I would have come up with this image: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sitting at the table with a glass of water in front of him. The glass is half-full. Or half-empty.
From the perspective of the executive branch of the Russian government – the only perspective that seems to matter to Putin – nothing tragic has happened. Given its iron intraparty discipline, even with 238 of the total 425 Duma seats, the United Russia party will still enjoy unbeatable majority in the 6th Duma. Which will make it fully capable of continuing to approve “the right decisions at the right time” – exactly as Putin expects any “efficient” parliament to operate. From this point of view, Putin’s glass is as full as it was back in 2003 or 2007.
Yet, it was obviously not lost on Putin that while United Russia has won an election – albeit not very persuasively, given that its six opponents failed to present any compelling alternative election platforms – it has lost a referendum with the Russian voters, and lost it twice. First, by bringing in only 49.3 percent of the public vote, United Russia has failed to win the approval of even a simple majority of Russians. Second, by facing large post-election protests in Moscow and other cities, United Russia was loudly told that even this modest result was considered by the public – whether justifiably or not — a product of massive fraud. From this point of view, Putin’s glass is empty and drying.
Putin has all the reasons to feel concerned. The next Duma elections might be five years away, but in less than three months, he will participate in the presidential election, an event that so far, has been deliberately staged as a public referendum on Putin. Indeed, lacking serious – that is, capable of beating him at the poll — contenders in 2000 and 2004, Putin always behaved as if the presidential elections were not a competition between him and other candidates, but, rather, a “deal” between him and the Russian voters. This was reflected even in the way Putin used to conduct his election “campaigns:” no formal election speeches, no TV debates with fellow candidates.
Will Putin reverse the course in the months ahead of the March 4 vote? Will he take part in TV debates with the presidential candidates from the Communist party, LDPR and Yabloko? Putin’s public debating skills remain largely unknown; in any case, even holding his ground against fierce Vladimir Zhirinovsky or brainy Grigory Yavlinsky – both experienced debaters – won’t be easy. Besides, Putin is likely to be asked a question he would prefer not answering: why is it him and not the current President Dmitry Medvedev who’s running?
In the days following the Sunday elections, Putin revealed what appear to be major hallmarks of his current election bid. First, he’s trying to distance himself from the United Russia party. In an interview with the BBC’s Russian Service on Tuesday, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that “Putin was never directly connected” to the party. Peskov’s statement sounds almost surreal, given that United Russia’s website still lists Putin as its Chairman. This morning, Putin expressed having “tender feelings” toward United Russia and then announced that his presidential campaign will be based instead on the All-Russia People’s Front he hastily created last May.
Second, during a meeting on Tuesday with heads of United Russia’s public reception offices, Putin issued a strongly worded promise to fight corruption using both “formal and informal” resources. It’s therefore quite possible that in the run up to the election, a couple of mid-ranked government officials will be sacked with great fanfare.
It’s hard to say which election result will be considered a “victory” by Putin himself. Formally, in order to get elected in the first round of the vote — and this objective was explicitly stated by his campaign staff — Putin needs to take over 50 percent of the ballots, something that looks quite realistic today. Yet, we remember that in 2004, Putin’s score stood at 71 percent, a result that can hardly be achieved next year without the helpful hand of the Central Election Commission. Everything above 50 will be considered Putin’s election win, but will he take anything below 71 as a referendum victory commensurate with his status as the “nation leader?”
We may not have the answer to this question until March 5.