The presidential campaign: if the incumbent’s rivals drop out, voters will be offered a choice between "the good and the very good"

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The official election campaign finally opened last week. It opened with a scandal, as usual.

As everyone knows, on February 12 the Rossiya television network (the Second Channel, VGTRK) featured a live broadcast of Vladimir Putin’s meeting with his authorized campaign representatives. The president, who recently turned down the free airtime to which he is entitled as a candidate, presented a detailed report to the nation on his four years in office, then shared his plans for the future. After that, his rivals started talking about violations of the law on elections, and unlawful campaigning.

Irina Khakamada and Nikolai Kharitonov immediately sent protests to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), requesting that they should be given half an hour of free airtime as well, to “equalize opportunities” with the favorite. Rumor has it that other candidates are ready to follow their example.

As the Vremya Novostei newspaper reported, CEC Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov managed to comment on this situation from two opposing points of view within a day.

At first, just in case, Veshyakov told journalists that he hadn’t seen that broadcast, and therefore had no intention of discussing it. But later on, at a meeting of the electoral commission of Tatarstan, he still promised to investigate the situation and make an assessment of it. Moreover, Veshnyakov even permitted himself to observe that in his view, the broadcast of Putin’s meeting with his authorized representatives did involve “some excessive elements on the part of national television channels.”

If their protests are not heeded, the rival candidates are prepared to take this to court. However, according to Vremya Novostei, this incident is unlikely to end in any demonstrative punishment of those responsible. Vremya Novostei recalls a similar situation last autumn, during the gubernatorial campaign in St. Petersburg, when national television channels covered Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Valentina Matvienko, a candidate for governor. A court was entirely satisfied with the explanation offered by television executives, to the effect that they were obliged to report on the president’s activities.

In an article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, leading political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky described Alexander Veshnyakov’s statement as “rebelling while on his knees.”

Meanwhile, the press service of the Second Channel lost no time in explaining to a Gazeta correspondent that “at the moment this broadcast of the Vesti program went to air, the president’s report on his work over the past four years was the main event in national and international news.” That is precisely why “the channel made the decision to broadcast it in place of the regular news program.”

Novaya Gazeta calculated the cost of that broadcast, based on VGTRK’s offical prices – 90,000 to 166,000 rubles for a 30-second campaign ad, depending on a program’s ratings. Putin got half an hour of live coverage; according to Novaya Gazeta, that was worth between 5.2 million and 9.6 million rubles.

The Vedomosti newspaper quotes the opinion of some specialists in media law: if the “Vesti” broadcast is determined to be campaign advertising, it should be paid for from the candidate’s campaign fund. Alternatively, if this is free campaign airtime, the timeslot should have been determined by the results of a draw – in which Putin didn’t participate. Otherwise, this could be described as abuse of office. And if the Second Channel was just keeping voters informed about the campaign measures of candidate Putin, it would have to offer the same amount of airtime to other candidates – and perhaps pay a hefty fine as well.

Meanwhile, Kommersant-Vlast magazine approached some politicians, political analysts, business leaders, and public figures, requesting them to comment on the president’s refusal to take part in televised debates with his rivals. Predictably, opinions varied.

Some respondents – like Igor Kogan, chief executive of OrgresBank, said the president had acted “nobly, at the very least” in refusing to fight his obviously weaker opponents.

Others – like Oleg Sysuev, first deputy chairman of the board at Alfa-Bank – said the president’s refusal “turns the election into a farce,” since “listening to Malyshkin discuss issues with comrade Kharitonov is only interesting from the psychiatric standpoint.”

Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov also criticized the president’s decision: “In a democracy, the refusal to take part in televised debates would in itself be enough to ensure that a candidate lost the election.” Ryzhkov emphasized that for a democracy, debates are “a key element in political hygiene, like brushing your teeth in the morning.”

Ryzhkov’s view is challenged by Japanese political analyst Shigeki Khakamada: “In the West, a president is obliged to take part in televised debates; a refusal wouldn’t be understood. But it Russia it doesn’t matter, and Putin’s popularity rating will not decline for this reason.”

The Japanese analyst’s view is shared by Russian Chief Rabbi (according to the Congress of Jewish Communities) Berl Lazar, who said he entirely understands Putin’s reluctance to take part in debates. “For candidates, debates are a way of telling the public about themselves and their views of the future,” Berl Lazar explained. “But for Putin, there’s no point in doing this. His views are already well-known. Moreover, Putin understands that he doesn’t have any real challengers.”

Viktor Pokhmelkin, former co-leader of the Liberal Russia party and now a Duma member, spoke even more directly: “Putin has no reason to debate anyone, and nothing to debate. The incumbent always loses out in debates, since weaknesses are revealed and he is forced to go on the defensive.”

Pokhmelkin asks this reasonable question: what use could the president have for debates, “when he’s already on television all the time, and the coverage is so very favorable?”

As for the offended candidates, according to Gazeta agreements have already been reached with them – they will get an extra half-hour of free live airtime.

However, Andrei Piontkovsky says in his Nezavisimaya Gazeta article that Kharitonov, Glaziev, and Khakamada, “faced with a model of entirely unequal opportunities for different candidates,” may choose to withdraw from the race. “And then the question of voter turnout would become very acute.” That is one of the most sensitive issues for the Kremlin in the current election campaign.

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal also raises the possibility of a “coordinated withdrawal from the race” by three candidates, “leaving Putin alone in the finishing straight with Mironov and Malyshkin.”

The “apparent rapprochement” between Kharitonov, Glaziev, and Khakamada could become a serious problem for the presidential administration, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal.

This is how Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal describes the “disposition of forces” in the first televised debates: “Khakamada aims precision strikes directly at the president, Glaziev aims slightly to the side of the president (Glaziev’s campaign manager Yana Dubovitskaya told Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal that criticism of the president would be ‘situational’ rather than the main approach in the campaign), and Kharitonov creates an overall fighting mood with his unintelligible but angry comments.”

Of course, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the Kremlin would be much more pleased “if Kharitonov accused Glaziev of betraying the people’s ideals, and Glaziev reproached Khakamada for accepting money from oligarchs, and Khakamada reminded Kharitonov of the horrors of Stalinism.”

That is basically what was happening towards the end of the parliamentary campaign, when most of the party critics forgot about United Russia and concentrated on fighting each other.

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal comments ironically that this would be real pluralism and a democratic debate which we should not be ashamed to show to international observers. “But what we have now is patently ludicrous: in prime time, on national television, three entirely respectable people are abusing the president from every direction, and there’s really no one to respond to them.”

Oleg Malyshkin is obviously unsuited to verbal battles; and Vladimir Zhirinovsky has not yet received permission from the CEC to take part in the debates as an authorized representative of his bodyguard.

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov recently launched his campaign policy program, calling a press conference at the Interfax news agency; as the Kommersant newspaper reports, this was his first public appearance as a presidential candidate.

It should be said that the question of why Sergei Mironov is in the presidential race at all has been a topic of discussion in the media for some time. The Argumenty i Fakty weekly has discerned “the Kremlin’s secret plan” in Mironov’s nomination.

Argumenty i Fakty says it’s “a matter of the Kremlin’s displeasure over the fact that although President Putin’s approval rating is 78%, public confidence in the state as a whole remains very low.” Therefore, Mironov’s objective is “to open a constructive public dialogue with the president on this issue, and to propose his own solutions for raising public confidence in the state.”

This is especially relevant because “constructive dialogue” between Putin and the other candidates is unlikely to be possible, according to Argumenty i Fakty: “They are either deliberately exaggerating problems in order to make debates even more heated and speculate on national disasters, or deliberately using common populism.” But a dialogue “between Putin and Mironov – the leaders of two branches of government, with an equal interest in making the state more efficient” could be “really interesting.”

Moreover, according to Argumenty i Fakty, for the first time, Russian voters will not be forced to choose between “a bad candidate and a very bad candidate” (Yeltsin-Zyuganov), or “a bad candidate and a good-but-unknown candidate” (Yeltsin-Putin); they will have a choice between “a good candidate and a very good candidate.” They will be able to “really compare and evaluate the ideas of two well-known people who are similar in ideology and spirit, but with their own vision of the paths of state development.”

It only remains to note that in Soviet times this situation was described as “a battle between better and good,” and it was widely used in official ideology.

Argumenty i Fakty also offers the hypothesis that Sergei Mironov’s presence in the presidential election of 2004 is nothing other than the start of his “image-building” for 2008, as a “potential replacement” for Putin.

However, according to the Russkii Kurier newspaper, it still isn’t possible to claim that “when we say Mironov, we mean Putin.”

According to Russkii Kurier, Mironov represents the “moderate liberal alternative” for voters: “Irina Khakamada, with her harsh criticism of the president’s policies, is the radical liberal alternative. Ivan Rybkin is ‘Berezovsky’s alternative to Putin.’ Oleg Malyshkin from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) is the pseudo-liberal alternative. Against this backdrop, Mironov really is the moderate alternative.”

Moreover, Mironov’s campaign policy program is based on a strong social component; it includes the major theses of all his rivals: confiscating excess profits from the oligarchs, cutting down the numbers of bureaucrats, and social guarantees for citizens.

Russkii Kurier notes that since “an integrated program is always preferable to isolated slogans,” Mironov is bound to take some points away from his opponents. According to Russkii Kurier, this will not necessarily be in Vladimir Putin’s favor, but in favor of Mironov himself: Mironov will get the support of voters who refuse to vote for the incumbent as a matter of principle.

In any event, says Russkii Kurier, there is every reason to assume that Mironov will be able to collect “currently-divided votes from part of the right, the left, and even the marginals who are still wondering whether they ought to vote.” And Russkii Kurier predicts that it’s quite possible, once the votes are counted, that the coveted second place will not go to Glaziev, Kharitonov, or Khakamada, but to “the Federation Council speaker who was underestimated by his opponents.”

The question of a new “successor” was evidently one of the strongest impressions for observers from Vladimir Putin’s speech to his authorized campaign representatives.

“Can you imagine Bill Clinton promoting the candidacy of George W. Bush?” asks Nezavisimaya Gazeta, outraged. “Or Francois Mitterand describing Jacques Chirac as a continuation of himself? No – if there is any real political competition, this would be impossible. But here it is possible, since although we have more than one competitor, one is always beyond competititon.”

In fact, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Putin’s speech was “full of words pleasing to the liberal ear.” After all, who can argue with a candidate who “speaks with steel in his voice about individual liberty and the priority of human rights, and the robustness of the Constitution, and being competitive as a national idea, and civilized political competition based on major political parties.”

It’s another matter entirely that all of the above-mentioned ideas, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, are at some “dissonance with reality.”

For example, Putin described the Russian parliament as “a law-making body that functions professionally.” However, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “in the wake of the December elections, one might just as well describe an electric meat-grinder as a professional burger-maker.”

Another example: the president stated that he sees his objective as “continuing work on forming a fully-fledged, effective civil society in Russia.” For heaven’s sake, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta – how can this possibly be part of the head of state’s responsibilities? All the Kremlin’s efforts to “form civil society” will inevitably lead “only to stifling everything and everyone.”

“Obviously,” says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, “one of the key features of Vladimir Putin’s second term will be barefaced hypocrisy. At every step, the regime will swear it’s committed to civil rights and civil liberties – while violating them without the slightest hesitation.”

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal emphasizes that Putin is already speaking of honest political competition while taking into account that “all the powers of the state are at the service of his election campaign.”

“If President Putin was really thinking of a multi-party system,” says Novoe Vremya magazine, “his administration would not be worrying about the dangers of Rybkin and Khakamada – rather, it would be begging Zyuganov and Yavlinsky to forgive past grievances and run in the presidential election.” And not for the sake of defeating Putin (it’s been clear from the start that this is impossible), but in order to preserve their electorate.

Bitterly, Novoe Vremya observes that no Russian politicians have considered that running in an election without any hope of victory is actually an entirely worthy goal. “In this situation, nobody has been thinking politically. Everyone has either been settling scores with the regime and with rivals, or pursuing petty and transient objectives.”

According to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, only once did the president permit himself to be frank in addressing his authorized representatives: when he mentioned the candidacy of a new “successor.” At least, it became clear that “Vladimir Putin does not intend to usurp the place in the Kremlin – he intends to pass it to a person he himself will select.”

Andrei Ryabov, a columnist for Gazeta, says the question of a “successor and continuation” will now become the key issue for Russia’s political class.

First of all: what kind of selection criteria will be used for the successor? Clearly, says Ryabov, a candidate’s professional background cannot be among them, since “the Russian people have never cared about what the master of the Kremlin used to do in his previous life – whether he was an unsuccessful lawyer, a mediocre party functionary, or a fighter against privileges.”

Neither are the criteria likely to include similarity between a candidate’s political views and the major objectives for the next presidential term: “If only because in Russia it’s hard to predict what those objectives will turn out to be.” For example, Yeltsin planned to dismantle communism. However, the old order collapsed much earlier than anyone expected, so the destroyer-president was forced to engage in an uncharacteristic task – creating a market economy. “He wasn’t very good at it.”

In Ryabov’s opinion, a candidate’s official status is likely to be much more important – the position from which he starts. And in that sense, according to Ryabov, the post of prime minister is the most promising.

However, says Ryabov, this does not apply to the person appointed as prime minister straight after this year’s election. After all, a great deal can happen over four years: “If any serious problems arise in the economy and society, the prime minister will obviously take the blame.”

More likely, the power-struggle for this promising post between various “influence groups” on the Russian political stage will unfold immediately before the election of 2008.

According to Ryabov, the politician chosen as prime minister, “due to the brief period he spends in this new role, will at first – or perhaps for quite a while – have to take his cue on all positions from his predecessor, and this will ensure stability and an orderly transfer of power.”

For a country which constantly encounters all kinds of problems and challenges, says Ryabov, such a scenario “would at least enable it to avoid any kind of cataclysms or upheavals.”

Actually, upheavals and cataclysms – so to speak – have become a consistent backdrop to the current election campaign.

Publishing results of the latest polls by ARPI (done before the subway blast), Novoe Vremya warns: most likely, these data will change substantially soon.

Indeed, the number of those who regard fighting terrorism as the chief problem (only 8%) is very likely to increase considerably.

Besides, as Kommersant discovered, judging by recordings of internal security cameras, a mysterious explosion at the base of a column supporting the roof had preceded the roof collapse at the water park in Moscow – an event which was first categorized as a man-made disaster.

Furthermore, predicts ARPI, to all appearances the number of people assuming that “President Putin has succeeded in establishing order in Russia” will change (two weeks ago, 51% of respondents thought so).

No reports that the president’s popularity rating has fallen are evident so far, while many analysts predict it will grow: “it is typical for a nation to rally around its leader in the moment of danger.”

Against the backdrop of the latest upheavals, the story of presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin, who had got lost first, and then turner up in Kyiv didn’t stirred up an average voter.

However, observers of various editions still regard this story worthy of attention and, to a certain extent, indicative of Russian political life.

The theory that Rybkin had been removed for his revelations about Putin’s “Family” was very popular because it seemed logical, says Dmitri Furman, an observer with Moskovskiye Novosti. “However, as often happens, life proved to be more absurd than logical theories. Thanks God, Rybkin had merely fled from his wife to Kyiv. These things happen,” notes Furman.

In the opinion of Dmitri Furman, the entire tragicomedy over the disappearance of a candidate is less interesting that the public response to this event: “Because this response sheds some light on what people really think of the authorities,” not philistines or oppositional politicians alone, but the Kremlin-based political consultants as well: “The authorities are loved and respected, but once a person who speaks about corruption of the authorities vanishes, heads do turn in the direction of the Kremlin and the FSB.”

Alexander Ryklin, an observer with Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, called Rybkin “Berezovsky’s second setback” (there’s no need to explain who was the first, but the magazine considered it necessary to show a picture of Vladimir Putin behind the back of the fugitive oligarch, side by side with Rybkin).

According to Ryklin, the explanations provided by Rybkin have been unanimously interpreted as nonsense. What’s more, “no matter what Ivan Rybkin might say from now on, nobody will pay even the slightest attention to his statements.” Only recently, the Kremlin couldn’t even dream of such a development.

Indeed, there’s no need to remove Rybkin from the presidential race (he could run his campaign from London if he wants to), and no need to deny anything he has said or is yet to say: “Everything will work out.”

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal proposes its own version of this story, presuming that from the very beginning Rybkin wasn’t suited to a role of an ardent fighter against criminals. “Apparently, the offer was one of those a person cannot refuse.”

Until a certain moment, says Alexander Ryklin, Rybkin was coping with his task – until the moment when the press (high time – the election is coming up in several weeks) published his interview exposing Putin.

Apparently, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, Rybkin faced serious pressure after that. “This is when he got really scared.”

According to Ryklin, Rybkin started seeking an opportunity to desert from the front.

Rybkin couldn’t simply abandon the entire undertaking: “he wouldn’t be understood in Britain.” Force majeur circumstances or, even better, a new “protector who could shield him from the infuriated Berezovsky” were required.

Meanwhile, Rybkin, who has failed to become a “political heavyweight,” doesn’t have necessary contacts.

The magazine assumes that Vladimir Rushailo, incumbent secretary of the Security Council, was the only person who could help Rybkin.

However, notes the magazine, it’s almost beyond doubt that “as soon as this conversation took place, all people concerned were informed about it. Undoubtedly, these people were making the subsequent decisions.”

A simple plan was developed: hide the candidate for a few days and thus eliminate him from the game. Quite possibly, Rybkin was unaware of the details of this plan; however, as Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal assumes, the Kremlin was in control of the situation.

It is also doubtless, stresses the magazine that “top Kremlin officials” used this chance to the full advantage.

“For instance, they could ask Ivan Rybkin to relate some interesting facts from the life of Boris Berezovsky. Probably, Berezovsky joined the bargaining process at a certain point, and finally got Rybkin away safe and well. The only question is why he needs Rybkin now.”

Anyhow, concludes Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, this entire story is a vivid illustration of political customs in modern Russia.

It should be noted that similar conclusions generated a wrathful rebuff in the pages of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a newspaper controlled by Berezovsky.

Prominent journalist Matvei Ganapolsky sharply puts the slanderers of Rybkin in their place: “What do we hear about Rybkin on TV? Firstly, he has been naturally doing all this on Berezovsky’s orders, for very big money. But is anyone else willing to finance any opposition? Could it be better for the Kremlin to finance it? Or, probably, the oligarchs, who are requesting to be called magnates, modestly applauding Putin at the meetings of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE) to save their business?”

Ganapolsky provided just as harsh a response to accusations that Rybkin is weak, unable to carry the burden he took on, and incompetent: “Does anybody other than one certain person have any chance of winning this election? And who are you calling incompetent? A person, who had been Security Council secretary, has been to Chechnya dozens of times and seen things you’d immediately go insane from. A person who has headed the legislature. A person who had published in Kommersant an article no one else would dare write. A person who speaks openly about some bank accounts and names of new oligarchs around Putin – the facts, which, if mentioned, don’t contribute to the health and longevity of a speaker.”

“Be silent so far. Wait a while, at least you will understand and realize something. Keep you conjectures to yourselves, since these are mere conjectures,” Ganapolsky advises commentators and analysts.

In general, this is good advice. The problem is how long one should wait for current events to be clarified.

However, it’s now less than four weeks until election day. And this period is most unlikely to be boring.

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