Sunday, March 4, 2012

Russia Decides: Presidential Election is a Referendum on Vladimir Putin

Voting has already begun in the Eastern parts of Russia in the 2012 presidential elections, where Vladimir Putin is contesting to win a six year term with four other candidates. This is the first election after the presidential term was increased to six years.

Holding an election in Russia is a mammoth process. It starts at 8 a.m. in each of the nine time zones in the Russian territory and will end 12 hours later. Therefore, when the Western city of Kaliningrad opens the voting centres, the Easternmost Chukotka and Kamchatka will be at the last few hours of voting.

Although the election fields five candidates, all eyes will be on the former President and the current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has dominated the Russian political arena in the last dozen years. The interesting question will be whether the Russian people would give him an overwhelming majority (above 50%) or force him into a second round. This would not have been such an ‘interesting’ question about a year ago when the United Russia Party seemed invincible. Yet, with the electoral setback and allegations of fraud in the general election of late 2011, which was followed by anti-government protests, Putin’s popularity plummeted. Meanwhile, the emergence of Mikhail Prokhorov as an alternative to Putin further raised questions on the latter’s re-election as President, although a victory by Prokhorov now seems to be a distant possibility.

Prokhorov, a multi-billionaire, is by far the richest and youngest man in the election. He is also the tallest among the five candidates and the most sought after bachelor in Russia. He is, therefore, not a stranger to Russian society even though he is a stranger to Russian politics. All the other candidates have been defeated in earlier bids for presidency. Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist, has always been the second in the previous bids in 1996, 2000 and 2008. In the earlier instance he offered a credible challenge but on the other two instances he was way behind the eventual winners.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the eccentric Liberal Democrat leader is a veteran at Presidential elections and at losing them. He has been in the contests in four earlier elections, refusing to run in 2004. In 2008, he received just over 9% of the vote. Sergei Mironov, the leader of “Just Russia” contested the 2004 elections but supported Vladimir Putin at that election.

In the 2012 election, Vladimir Putin is expected to lead the pack by far as the other votes will be split among the four other candidates. Still it is unclear as to who will be the second best performer. However, there are indications that it would hardly matter. Opinion polls in December and January showed that Putin will not be able to win the election in first round itself. However, he has regained some lost ground and may do better than his first presidential victory in 2000, where he won just over 53% of the vote. Even if he fails to win the presidency today, he will almost certainly defeat any opponent in a head on battle in the second round, given the antagonism between some candidates in the opposition camp.

However, if the opposition forces Putin into a second round, it will be a victory in itself. It will prove that Putin does not have the support of the majority of the Russian people, something he had taken for granted in the twelve years from 2000.

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