Russians will go to the polls this weekend to elect a new president. Well, you might wonder what is the big deal?
In a sense, there is no big deal. Russia seems to have taken to electoral politics like duck to water.
Nevertheless, the event is significant for at least two reasons.
First, this will be the first time in decades that there is a succession at the Kremlin without bloodshed or at least political upheaval. Under the ancient regime the tsars were made and unmade through palace coups and plots by the boyars. Under Communism, the power struggle took place within the confines of a star chamber known as the Politburo. In the dying days of the Soviet Union and the early phases of the new regime the so-called oligarchs and their nouveaux-riches puppet-masters dictated the mise-en-scene.
Now, however, Vladimir Putin is bowing out as president after eight years without the slightest hint of a political crisis.
To be sure, Putin’s critics, both inside and outside Russia have had a field day with his efforts to impose a successor of his choice who would facilitate his return to power, this time as prime minister.
They argue that the Russian presidential election looks more like the primaries held by American political parties than a fully-fledged democratic exercise. The main candidate, the 42-year old Deputy Premier games Dmitri Medvedev is Putin’s handpicked favourite. The Putin power machine has mobilised the resources of the state in support of his anointed successor.
However, it is not unnatural for a retiring president to try to secure the succession of a like-minded person in any democracy.
By all accounts, the kind of politics that Putin represents continues to enjoy strong popular support across Russia.
Even before Putin endorsed Medvedev, all public opinion polls showed that Putin’s favoured candidate would win the largest share in the first round of voting on Sunday. (The aggregate of polls gave him 34 per cent.) Once the Putin endorsement had been made public, Medvedev’s support jumped to 79 per cent, ensuring him election in the first round.
In this election there are only two other candidates that may collect more than 10 per cent of the votes.
One is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the certifiable chauvinist whose ramshackle party of goons was financed by t he Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for years. He advocates the revival of the Russian Empire, by force if necessary, and dreams of extending the standard of the double-headed eagle to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Most polls show that he might end up with up to 13 per cent of the votes.
The other candidate with double-digit support is Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov who is likely to get 11 per cent of the votes.
Neither Zhirinovsky nor Zyuganov offer mainstream programmes that could attract large sections of present-day Russian society.
The so-called liberal constituency in Russia accounts for around 20 per cent of the electorate. However, it has failed to build a consensus around a single credible candidate. Instead, it is entering the battle with several candidates offering conflicting versions of the liberal message.
Is it surprising that most Russian should want to vote for continuity rather than taking unnecessary risks with a mad nationalist, an unreformed Stalinist, or a confused liberal?
In a sense, this election is about Putin’s record rather than the promises of a future president. Many Russians expect Medvedev to be no more than a seat-warmer for Putin.
According to one scenario, Medvedev would resign only six months after his election as president, allowing Putin to seek re-election for a third, and then a fourth, presidential term without violating the constitution that allows only two successive four-year terms.
The assumption is that Russians want Putin for at least another eight years.
This is not surprising.
Putin has a strong record in both domestic and foreign policies. He has rebuilt the shattered Russian state apparatus, restored the nation’s lost self-confidence, and led the economy out of the doldrums. Today, most Russians feel more secure, more prosperous and more at peace with themselves than ever since the fall of the Soviet empire. Putin has also ended the war in Chechnya, a plus for any Russian leader despite the fact that the man put in charge in Grozny is the obnoxious Ramazan Kadyrov.
Last Thursday, Putin offered a detailed assessment of his record in a five-hour long press conference attended by almost 1400 reporters. Ignoring the inevitable self-congratulatory note and the flower arrangements used to cover some ugly facts, Putin’s record, as spelled out at the conference, is better than any of his predecessors in the past century or so.
And, yet, one cannot help the sentiment that the Putin era is drawing to a close. This is the second reason why Sunday’s election is of some interest. Medvedev may be the anointed successor, but he may not be the ventriloquist’s dummy that Putin expects.
In any case, the Putin method, like all others in politics, may have reached it is limits. The use of an authoritarian style of rule to build a modern society with the state at its centre is not new to Putin. In different contexts rulers as diverse as Peter the Great, Bismarck, the Japanese military, and even Mussolini and Stalin tried it. In the final analysis, however, authoritarian rule leads either to atrophy or to revolution and war.
A decade ago, Russia suffered from a deficit of discipline and a general breakdown of law and order.
Today, although most Russians might not know it, it suffers from a deficit of freedom. The real question over the next four years is how to broaden the bases of decision-making without weakening the state. That would require a gradual loosening of the leash that is choking much of the media and preventing other institutions, notably the political parties and the parliament, from doing their proper job.
Putin’s economic policy is also reaching the limits of its efficacy. Using the windfall from oil and gas exports to finance growth rates of seven to eight per cent per annum has produced an economic boom of which Putin is justly proud. However, as other oil-rich nations have realised, Russia, too, will soon learn that creating durable wealth requires something more than vast sums of foreign currency. The Russian economy is at the mercy of vicissitudes in the major industrial economies whose demand for energy has helped keep the Putin model afloat.
The main theme of Medvedev’s campaign was the future while he based his legitimacy on Putin’s past achievements. Back to the future?
This might work in cinema. Politics, however, has a different grammar.