Russia presidential election: Vladimir Putin fights to shake off negative poll

Prime Minister Putin's popularity ratings have been gradually falling (photo: dpa)
Prime Minister Putin's popularity ratings have been gradually falling (photo: dpa)

Vladimir Putin, the once untouchable Russian leader and president-in-waiting has fallen out of favour. The outcome of Russia’s national election in December, 2011, has sent shock waves through the world amid allegations of massive electoral fraud. Thousands of protestors have called for Prime Minister Putin to go. Speculation is rife as the country gears up for the March 2012 presidential election. Both markets and governments are looking at possible scenarios. In a series of mini-briefings on the forthcoming Russian election, GIS will examine over the next two weeks how the Putin spell was broken, look at what forces have begun to stir, and consider who are the main movers and contenders.

THE image of a stable and predictable Russia has cracked. It is no longer clear that the 'tandem' between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is unshakeable.

Between 1999 and 2007 the Russian economy boomed growing an average of seven per cent a year. Living standards rose and Putin was hailed the country' s saviour. But since 2008, the new middle class have been squeezed and cracks have appeared in the Putin image

Mr Putin, the charismatic figure who, for more than a decade, enjoyed the following of the Russian people - first as president and then as president-in-waiting - is now facing an uncertain future.

Country's saviour

Between 1999 and 2007 the Russian economy boomed growing an average of seven per cent a year. Living standards rose and Putin was hailed the country' s saviour. But since 2008, the new middle class have been squeezed and cracks have appeared in the Putin image.

It remains fairly certain that Mr Putin will indeed be able to realise his ambition to return to the presidency - perhaps for another 12 years. But the run-up to the March, 2012, presidential election no longer promises to be the smooth sail all had expected.

Vladimir Putin enjoyed tremendous prestige during his first two terms as President of the Russian Federation, beginning in March 2000.

In 2008, having served out the first two terms of his presidency, he decided to abide by the constitutional ban on serving a third consecutive term.

He designated Dmitry Medvedev as his successor and retired to serve as prime minister. The 'tandem' was born. Years of speculation followed over who would run for president in 2012.

Such speculation came to an end on September 24, 2011. Speaking at a conference of the ruling United Russia party, Mr Putin announced that he and Mr Medvedev had agreed to simply swap jobs.

Sheer arrogance

Mr Putin would run for president, and Mr Medvedev would take the back seat as prime minister. Mr Putin also let it be known that this was a decision that had been reached a long time ago, but kept secret.

The sheer arrogance of it all was apparently too much. It was as if something had suddenly snapped. The spell of Mr Putin’s charisma was broken.

Over the following weeks, leading up to the State Duma election on December 4, 2011, poll ratings started slipping both for Mr Putin and for United Russia, his 'party of power'.

Visibly shaken, the regime began to apply growing pressure on the media and on opposition political parties. Selective denial of registration for opposition parties was combined with selective allocation of television time and pure intimidation.

On election day, the regime cracked down on the independent election watchdog Golos, whose website had published thousands of alleged irregularities. Cyber attacks were launched against websites critical of the Kremlin, and a substantial presence of riot police in Moscow streets indicated a fear of massive street protests.

Inflated results

On election night, United Russia suffered a considerable setback. According to the allegedly inflated results, it had still received no more than 49 per cent of the votes. United Russia gained 64 per cent in the 2007 Duma election.

It was troubling to the regime for the simple reason that the 2011 Duma election had been intended to show that Mr Putin would have an easy run to a first round victory in the March 2012 presidential election. The trouncing of his 'party of power' casts doubt on such hopes

It was troubling to the regime for the simple reason that the 2011 Duma election had been intended to show that Mr Putin would have an easy run to a first round victory in the March 2012 presidential election. The trouncing of his 'party of power' casts doubt on such hopes.

The fact that electoral fraud appears to have been most flagrant in Moscow and St Petersburg also indicates that the regime faces a risk of losing the middle class. Since these are the people who have been the main beneficiaries of the economic upturn over the past decade, it will be a bitter pill for Mr Putin to swallow. His first reactions were aggressive denial, including an attempt to blame US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for having inspired the protests.

None of this will change the fact that Mr Putin has been shown to be out of touch. The brand has been shot, perhaps irrevocably so.

The choice to be faced is a stark one. Mr Putin can accept that the country no longer has much desire for him, and allow this to be manifested in open and fair elections. Even if he may still win the upcoming presidential election, he would then gradually wane and eventually be compelled to leave office a humiliated man.

Democratic institutions

In this case, Russia would stand a chance of rejuvenating its democratic institutions. A liberal-minded opposition could ride the wave of protest that has swept through various social media, and it might succeed in changing the minds of talented youths that are presently poised to emigrate en masse.

The alternative is to persist in defiance, to rig elections and clamp down on opposition. Assuming that the Kremlin still controls both the security apparatus and the 'administrative resources' of the state, it may still be possible to secure that Mr Putin remains in office for another 12 years. But the price would be high.

Under this scenario, Russia would become increasingly similar to the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev who presided over the country from 1964 to 1982. It would face increasing economic stagnation, political fossilisation and emigration.

Much is at stake, and much will be determined by how Mr Putin decides to act. Unfortunately, there little in what we have seen to date that indicates that humility and a readiness to accept defeat will be part of that reaction.

Putin facts

  • Aged 59, hobbies include martial arts, jogging. He has a black belt in judo
  • Speaks English and German
  • Married, two daughters
  • His mother was a factory worker and his father was conscripted into the Soviet navy
  • Gained a law degree in 1975. Joined an elite division of the Soviet security service, the KGB
  • August, 1999 to May, 2000, prime minister of the Russian Federation
  • December, 1999 - May, 2000, acting president
  • 2000 - elected president with 53% of the vote
  • 2004 - re-elected president with 71% of the vote
  • 2008 - is given a post as prime minister
  • 2011, September, Mr Putin announces he intends to run again for president – a move not well received by either Russia’s rising middle classes who have begun to resent the ruling party United Russia’s paternalistic treatment or by many rural Russians who remain mired in poverty
  • Official results from the December 4, 2011, vote for seats in parliament’s lower house, the Duma, gave Mr Putin's United Russia party just under 50% of the vote - down from 64% at the previous Duma election in 2007
  • Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, ranks Russia 143, alongside Nigeria and Uganda, in its latest index
  • Mr Putin has blamed foreign governments for funding Russia’s political opposition
  • Just 36% of Russians would now vote for Mr Putin – down from 42% at the start of December, 2011, says the Levada Center, an independent polling agency

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