United Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, has swept the Russian parliamentary election. But the battle for power is only beginning: the critical moment will arrive in March next year, when Mr Putin steps down from the presidency.
The Russian government hailed the results of the country’s weekend parliamentary elections as a big personal endorsement for President Vladimir Putin. ‘The overwhelming majority of Russian voters spoke in favour of supporting President Putin's course’, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed after early results came in.
Although counting is still proceeding in remote areas of the world’s biggest state - spanning two continents and eleven time zones – it is clear that the United Russia party, a movement which President Putin leads, has captured over 60 per cent of the votes, far ahead of the second-placed Communists, which got only 11 per cent.
Moscow officials were quick to claim the vote as proof of their country’s growing political stability. But the reality remains that the battle for power is only beginning: the critical moment will arrive in March next year, when Vladimir Putin steps down from the presidency.
United Russia was always predicted to win this weekend’s parliamentary vote. Quite apart from the fact that it enjoyed unprecedented official backing and resources, it also benefited from steady economic growth on the back of rising energy prices, after decades of political and financial mayhem.
As the electoral campaign was drawing to a close last week, Moscow officials started worrying that the certainty of the result would generate voter apathy, thereby diluting the legitimacy of United Russia’s electoral mandate. Voter participation of less than 50 per cent would have derailed the entire plan.
This danger was averted: turnout was a robust 60 per cent, higher than the previous elections in 2003. More importantly, once votes cast for parties which have failed to cross the 7 per cent threshold required for parliamentary representation are redistributed, United Russia should be able to get its coveted 66 per cent of parliamentary seats, the magic figure which will give the movement powers to amend the constitution should it wish to do so.
And to make matters better still, only two other parties – apart from United Russia and the Communists – entered parliament. These are the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democrats and the left-leaning Just Russia party. The Liberal Democrats, led by all-time political clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are hardly a problem. Their presence in all of Russia’s post-communist parliaments has long been encouraged by the authorities, mainly in order to give leaders an air of legitimacy; with Zhirinovsky as an alternative, almost anyone in the Kremlin looked preferable. Nor is Just Russia a difficult political customer: although claiming to be ‘left wing’, the movement is another creation of Putin’s associates, an artificial construct intended to boost the claim that Russia is a multi-party democracy. In practice, therefore, President Putin’s associates are right to feel satisfied; their real majority in parliament is about 80 per cent, and the official opposition – even if it can ever unite – is both irrelevant and politically unelectable.
But behind the scenes, Russian officials remain rattled, and for good reasons.
Opposition leaders – such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov who, together with some of his colleagues, has been locked up in the last stages of the campaign – claim that the elections were rigged. Even the Communists, who did rather well by retaining their second-place position in the polls, echo similar complaints: ‘These results are not fair. We intend to challenge them in the Supreme Court’, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told reporters yesterday.
All these challenges are certain to be brushed off by an electoral commission dominated by President Putin’s appointees. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Western media coverage of the Russian elections has been overwhelmingly negative; there was no newspaper article or electronic media report which took the Russian vote seriously, or which argued that the contest was a fair one. In public, Mr Putin claims that this does not bother him unduly; indeed, the Russian leader has claimed that all Western criticism is merely a device for ‘destabilizing’ his country, an old refrain which would make the leaders of the Soviet Union proud. Nevertheless, Western criticism still hurts, since the Russian president has long tried to portray Russia as a democratic, modern state, and this claim now carries even less conviction. Mr Putin went to great lengths to claim that he is respecting his country’s legal system; nobody really believes him.
More importantly, the parliamentary vote has done nothing to resolve the far tougher battle over the presidency. Vladimir Putin, who has served as head of state for eight years, is barred by the constitution from standing again. He has promised to respect the constitution. But he has also given clear indications of his intentions to continue influencing political events in Russia. The question is how this could be done.
As leader of the United Russia party, Mr Putin could now become prime minister. However, he cannot do so now, for his is still president for the next four months. So, if Putin covets the job of prime minister, he will still need to find a substitute until March next year, someone who could run the parliamentary majority before he is able to do so himself. But the job of prime minister is inferior to that of president, and Mr Putin is not accustomed to taking orders from anyone. It is hardly likely that Mr Putin would agree to serve as prime minister to another head of state.
Alternatively, Mr Putin could retire next March, and continue to exercise influence from behind the scenes, without holding any formal position. But few analysts believe that this could work; the security services and the military – the real mainstays of his power-base – need to be led from the front. Another prime minister or president would provide alternative poles of powers, and the formula would not work.
Another scenario now making the rounds in Moscow suggests that the next president will be a dull figure, who will be expected to stay in office for just a few months, and then resign for ‘health reasons’, paving the way for Mr Putin’s return to power. The strategy is clever, but it threatens to expose Mr Putin to even bigger accusations that he is defying the spirit of his own constitution. If this is what Putin has in mind, it would have been preferable to amend the constitution now, rather than subvert the law through legal manouvering in a few months.
The guess is that, at least for the moment, President Putin has not decided which strategy he should follow; the weekend’s parliamentary vote simply gave him the option to do as he pleases.
Meanwhile, as long as the presidency question is unresolved, Russia’s political life will remain in suspended animation.
So, the country has acquired a new parliament with a clear majority but, paradoxically, it is still far from enjoying real political stability. Indeed, Russia may now be entering a period of deep political crisis; expect surprises at every turn.
Director, International Security Studies Department
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI