Head to head: Vladimir Putin, right, takes issue with Gennady Zyuganov, his main rival in the 2012 presidential election. Source: AP
When Vladimir Putin
announced in September that he would run for president in next year’s election,
no one doubted he would return to the position he held between 2000 and 2008.
The dominant figure in Russian politics for more than a decade, he had enjoyed
high approval ratings as both president and prime minister.
But the poor showing of United Russia in the recent State Duma elections and
subsequent street protests seem to have thrown a spanner in the works. “People
are demanding more respect from the authorities,” says Andrei Ryabov of the
Carnegie Centre in Moscow.
Aside from United Russia, there are six nationally registered political
parties, but there are no obviously strong presidential candidates in any of
them. While covering a diverse set of political viewpoints, from nationalist to
liberal, none has widespread appeal among the voters.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) is the most credible
opposition, with a membership of more than 180,000. Its candidate has been
second in every presidential election since the fall of the USSR, with the
party leader Gennady Zyuganov losing the first-round vote to then-President
Boris Yeltsin in 1996 by a margin of just 3 percent.
Though the CPRF has attracted high-profile candidates opposed to the ruling
regime, they have generally lacked ideological credentials. It has also failed
to modernise: unlike the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union after 1956, it officially celebrates Stalin’s rule.
Mr Zyuganov, 67, has headed the party since 1993, but now relies mainly on protest
votes for his popularity. Announcing his intention to run for president earlier
this year, he said: “A gang of folks who cannot do anything in life apart from
dollars, profits and mumbling, has humiliated the country.”
a party widely rumoured to have been set up by the Kremlin in 2006 precisely to
take votes from the Communists, also appeals to a left-leaning electorate with
promises of a new socialism of the 21st century. Leader Sergei Mironov was
speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament from 2001 to 2011.
Previously a staunch Putin supporter, he also announced his intention to run
for president earlier this month.
Another long-standing political heavyweight is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of
the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) since its inception in 1991.
While the party has positioned
as anti-government with several nationalist slogans, it has voted in favor of practically every major
The remaining parties – liberal-leaning Yabloko, Right Cause and Patriots of
Russia – only have single-figure approval ratings so could not be credible
competition, although Yabloko will field a candidate in the shape of the economist
and intellectual Grigory Yavlinsky.
“A drop in oil prices could be enough to turn these political leaders into
genuine opposition [candidates],” says Mr Ryabov. “However you feel about
Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky and Mironov – they’re professional politicians. They
understand how society feels and know how to react. Look at Eastern Europe in
the late Eighties: previously loyal political parties in East Germany and Poland split with the government,
and some of them came to power.”
Not everyone is waiting for the parties to modernise. Mikhail Prokhorov – Russia’s
billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets – recently announced his desire to run
for the country’s top office.
For most of the past decade, big money had stayed out of Russian politics.
Maybe too many dashes. But this year Mr Prokhorov joined the Right Cause
political party – designed to appeal to a liberal-leaning, urban electorate –
and announced his intention to take Mr Putin’s job as prime minister. Then he
was voted out of the party after having spent millions of his own dollars on
billboards and promotions across the country.
Mr Prokhorov’s announcement that he would be running as an independent caused a
stir in the media – especially after Mr Prokhorov promised to release the
jailed oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky if he was elected.
Another widely-circulated name is the lawyer-turned-anti-corruption blogger
Alexei Navalny, described as “the only electable Russian” by the opposition
journalist Yulia Latynina. Mr Navalny rose to fame after launching a popular
website exposing corruption in state organisations and companies.
One of his strategies was to buy a small number of stocks in state companies
and use Russian investor protection laws to obtain information. However, Mr
Navalny shocked both Western and Russian observers when he attended a Russian
nationalist march earlier this year. He has denied any intention to run for
president, and the polls – conducted in November by the Levada Centre – show
that only around 1 percent of Russians trust him.
While few doubt that Mr Putin will win the top job in the end, his relationship
with the newly elected parliament and society is anything from certain. United Russia recently
surrendered half of the parliamentary committee chairmanships, which it had controlled
for four years, to opposition parties following the election results.
“If Putin doesn’t win in the first round of elections and has to face someone
in a run-off, this will be a major signal from society that things need to
change,” says Dmitry Babich, a political analyst at RIA Novosti.
“But I’m sure he’ll win in the second round. There’s not a single figure to unite the opposition like in 1991; there’s not even a few single figures who could agree between themselves.”
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