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Presidential polls due on March 4 in Russia might have a touch of unexpectedness, for the first time in the past 16 years. The shoo-in is well known. He is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who is running for his third term in the presidential office. The question is whether it will take only one round of voting for him to take his office. Strange as it might seem but experts believe it will be better for him to win in runoffs to make his powers more legitimate. Otherwise a wave of protests against vote rigging seems to be inevitable, whatever scale it might take. Because it was the demand for fair elections that has been the keynote of protests sweeping over big cities throughout Russia since last December.
Most of political analysts however predict the voting will be confined to one round – last but not least thanks to the efficient strategy the authorities have taken after mass opposition rallies. The chief question widely debated in society in recent days is what would be the relations between the president and his opponents advocating radical reforms of the political system he has built. Much will depend on how fair the elections will be.
Along with Vladimir Putin, four more candidates are vying the presidential office. They are Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), Sergei Mironov of the A Just Russia party, and self-nominee Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire. It was the latter who engrossed much of public interest. Prokhorov, with his plans to create a liberal party of his own, is wonder boy of Russian politics. The rest are political long-livers and veterans of presidential races, who have proved to be unable to infuse new blood in the canvassing campaign.
Back in last November, when the presidential polls were only fixed for March 2012, it looked like they would follow the same scenarios as two previous campaigns. Starting position showed little difference, “one shoo-in, several parliament opposition leaders aspiring to next to nothing, and a traditionally strong media and administrative resource at the disposal of the key contender,” writes the Kommersant. Vlast weekly.
However, public protest that followed the December parliamentary elections has dramatically changed the once-tranquil situation. Strong protest movement has proved that it would be hardly ever possible to use once-efficient scenarios in the presidential campaign.
Mass rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg, protests in other Russian regions came as a shock for the ruling party and its leader. As a matter of fact, it has turned out that Putin’s chief rival in the current campaign is the mass protest movement organized by the middle class. The authorities however were quick to draw lessons. Putin’s political strategists have mastered techniques of creating the image of the enemy, a practice so much widely used by Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin to deal with the opposition. The only difference is that the then enemy was embodied in the communists seeking to drag the country back to its dark Soviet-era past, and the present-day enemy is the so-called “color revolution” fraught with the return of the Yeltsin-era turmoil.
“In a bid to win more votes in Putin’s support, people are bullied by the chaos of the 1990s, by an ‘orange revolution,’ or by foreign influences,” the Kommersant daily cites Alexei Grazhdankin, a deputy director of the Levada-Centre opinion agency. “Fear appeal is a right method in terms of political technologies.”
To counterbalance the protest movement, a strong wave of mass rallies was organized to support Putin and his course towards stability.
According to experts, Putin’s chances to win are much bigger than the results his party, United Russia, demonstrated in the parliamentary polls. And it looks logical that the party has had practically no say in Putin’s canvassing campaign.
Putin easily outscores any of the rest of his rivals, Valery Fyodorov, the director general of the VCIOM public opinion centre, said in an interview with the Expert magazine. Moreover, he has opted not to sit snug after the unfavourable Duma voting but rather launched a counterattack and took the lead in the information space.
In general, the authorities have proved to be more flexible than one might have expected. They have taken on preemptive tactic by virtually giving the green light to opposition rallies and marches, by submitting a package of bills to reform the political system, and by allowing leaders of the off-parliament opposition to appear on state-run television channels. More to it, off-parliament opposition was even invited to meet with the president.
Web cameras have been mounted at all polling stations, as Putin once proposed, and leaders of the protest movement have been invited to monitor the elections.
The off-parliament opposition is split and had failed to nominate its candidate for president, and it also adds to Putin’s chances. The Yabloko party has called to vote against all, while one of the protest rallies organizers, leader of the Left Front Sergei Udaltsov has called to vote for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
The problem is that the “victory should be right,” the Itogi weekly writes. If Putin sweeps the election winning a humiliating for his rivals majority of vote, the situation might again come to the boil.
“In case of large-scale violations in course of voting we will have to take to streets practically every day,” the Left Front leader warns. “And something points that the threat will be realized regardless of whether the evidence is true,” the weekly notes.
Voters now seem to be more suspicious that the polling results might be rigged. Whereas in 2008, only ten percent of voters thought that the elections would be falsified, now the figure grew to 18 percent. Besides, about 40 percent of the polled said they did not exclude possible infringements, which however would not tell on the election outcome.
“Some influential opposition forces are spearing no effort to discredit the election system,” said the VCIOM director. “The only criterion for fairness of the elections for them is Putin’s failure.”
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the prime minister said he had evidence that the opposition was seeking to falsify the voting, including through ballot paper stuffing. The opposition expressed indignation and brought accusations in reply.
In these conditions, public control over the voting is to be strict as it has never been before. Many parties and organizations have delegated their observers to practically all polling stations throughout the country. The situation around the elections seems to be hair-triggered.
MOSCOW, March 2