August 29, 2011 7:14 pm

Russian parliamentary poll set for December

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Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, has announced that parliamentary elections will be held on December 4, a vote that could determine the presidential succession next year.

Political experts say the long-awaited announcement on presidential succession for 2012, the deadline for which is the end of December, is likely to take place soon after parliamentary election results are announced. The outcome of the poll could make a big difference in determining whether Mr Medvedev will get a second term as president or whether Vladimir Putin will return to the job after a term as prime minister.

If the United Russia party, headed by Mr Putin, were to retain its two-thirds control of the state Duma, or lower house of parliament, it would be able to block most decisions, impeach the president and change the constitution. This would allow Mr Putin to remain prime minister while having the de facto levers of political control, according to Valery Fadeev, editor in chief of Ekspert Magazine.

“Russia actually has a flexible constitution, and, despite the strong presidency, Putin could, as de facto head of both parliament and government, continue to rule the country. They may not even need the president,” said Mr Fadeev.

Others disagree, saying much of Mr Putin’s political power stems from the expectation that he will return to the presidency, and that if he does not it would diminish his political weight.

“I’m sure Putin has already decided [on the presidency] but hasn’t told anyone yet of his decision,” said Vladimir Pribylovsky, who runs the political website anticompromat.org.

Mr Medvedev said in June that he would like a second term as president, while Mr Putin has been coy on his ambitions. Neither man has declared his candidacy, saying they will agree among themselves when the time comes. Most experts believe the decision is Mr Putin’s to make, and the consensus among experts is that he will return. However, the consensus on such matters has been frequently wrong in the past.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s press secretary, cautioned on the timing of the announcement regarding the presidency, saying “it will be up to the two men who have to decide” to agree when they make their decision public.

Reading the tea leaves of the Russian political system has never been easy, but the Putin-Medvedev question has gripped Russia’s political class, which hangs on every word, nuance and gesture.

Elections, meanwhile, are a familiar ritual in a country where public life is carefully orchestrated by the Kremlin.

Mr Putin has been trying to reinvent United Russia by running “primaries” to allow voting for the party list in a bid to stop a steady fall in its popularity rating; this now stands at 44 per cent, down 15 per cent from the peak in 2009.

Experts point out, however, that United Russia’s popularity rating was the same – 44 per cent – in 2007, when it won 315 of 450 Duma seats.

“In Russia, as Stalin said, it doesn’t matter who votes but who counts,” said Mr Pribylovsky. He opined that the Putin-Medvedev question, as well as the result of the election, was likely to have been decided already.

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