The Year 2008 Problem: on the election chances of Connie the labrador

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Various layers of Russian society continue to generate proposals for amending the Constitution to enable Vladimir Putin to run for a third term in office. Izvestia observer Maksim Sokolov remarks that there seems to be only one way to deter such initiatives: make them a criminal offense.

Then again, says Sokolov regretfully, “even that might not help.”

Although Putin himself has stated repeatedly – “in plain language,” says Sokolov – that he doesn’t intend to seek a third term, “part of our society still interprets this to mean that he really does intend to do so, and all his statements are nothing more than cunning tricks designed to relax vigilance.”

Sokolov assumes that these efforts to guess the leader’s true intentions are based on a sincere belief that “anyone who rises to the supreme position of authority must inevitably want to rule forever.”

Indeed, as the Novye Izvestia newspaper points out, regional leaders have completely ignored Putin’s numerous denials about the possibility of a third term.

Governor Vladimir Kulakov of the Voronezh region told the media that “in the president situation, the president has no right to up and leave,” and it’s simply essential to “think of some method of keeping Putin for a third term.”

Governor Anatoly Lisitsyn of the Yaroslav region was even more resolute, explaining that another Putin term is needed “so that all beneficial initiatives can be realized at the federal level.” For that purpose, “we could even rewrite the Constitution.”

This opinion is shared by Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and the legislatures of St. Petersburg, the Ivanovo region, and the Primorye territory.

But the most widely-discussed proposal has come from the Concord and Stability movement in North Ossetia. As Novye Izvestia notes, in April 2005 this movement proposed holding a referendum to lift the constitutional ban on third consecutive terms.

Valery Gizoyev, Concord and Stability’s executive committee chairman, told the Kommersant newspaper the other day that the movement has its own money (a fund collecting donations from “very wealthy citizens from North Ossetia and other Russian regions”), and intends to launch a national media campaign to promote its “mysterious initiative” (as Maksim Sokolov describes it).

Kommersant reports that its presidential administration sources categorically deny any Kremlin involvement in this operation. Gizoyev’s statements are in the same spirit: “We try to avoid any interaction with the authorities, so that no one will even think of saying that the referendum idea was handed down from above.”

But that’s precisely the explanation that seems most obvious, says Izvestia. According to Sokolov, the most curious aspect of this story is that the North Ossetian group has started its campaign in a publication owned by “certain individuals who have a certain ideology.”

In Sokolov’s view, there are two possible explanations: “Perhaps the Kremlin is being devilishly cunning in launching its test balloons and working to change public opinion in its own favor via media outlets owned by exiled barons, while the barons themselves are either unaware of this or aware but helpless.” Clearly, Sokolov doesn’t consider this explanation very convincing.

The second explanation: “The barons, with a devilish lack of cunning, are taking active measures in the press, not even bothering to cover their tracks.”

Sokolov says this isn’t a foolish idea at all: “The target audience for these active measures – the pro-liberation community in Russia and the general public in the West – is made up of people who are quite prepared to believe what was obvious to them already.” So there’s no need for overly-sophisticated intrigue or “additional track-covering” in this case: “They’ll swallow it anyway.”

Besides, as Kommersant notes, the referendum is unlikely to take place, since Concord and Stability doesn’t plan to start any real work on it until autumn. But complying with all the necessary formalities (establishing initiative groups in at least 45 regions and collecting 2 million signatures) would take at least three months. And under federal law, national referendums can’t be held within a year of presidential or Duma elections (that is, a referendum would have to be held before December 7, 2006).

Kommersant adds that even if the North Ossetian proposal never becomes reality, such “displays of loyalist sentiment” could still cause substantial problems for Vladimir Putin in the lead-up to the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. He would surely have to issue further denials of rumors that he intends to seek a third term, since the “grass roots” campaign to amend the Constitution would indicate the contrary.

But Concord and Stability seems unconcerned about this situation. Valery Gizoyev said: “Of course Russia’s enemies won’t like this initiative – but after all, it’s our country!”

And there are indications that a majority of Russian citizens share Gizoyev’s opinion.

As Kommersant notes, all the Kremlin’s assurances about a third term being impossible have had the opposite effect: the Levada Center polling agency reports that support for re-electing Putin has risen from 41% of respondents to 59% over the past nine months.

Meanwhile, only 32% of respondents believe that Putin will keep his word and take no action to make it possible for him to seek a third term in 2008.

Not that it would require much effort.

In an interview with the Sobesednik weekly, political analyst Yulia Latynina expressed the opinion that “Vladimir Putin’s successor will be Vladimir Putin.”

Yulia Latynina: “Of course, he’ll say that he doesn’t want to do it – but others will explain to him that despite his honest attempts to hand over power, neither Sergei Ivanov nor Dmitri Medvedev can handle it. So how could Putin fail to let himself be persuaded?”

But “that would be a very bad option,” says Latynina. In her view, “any successor at all – even Connie, Putin’s labrador – would be better for Russia than Putin himself.” Not because he’s a bad president, but because “any successor is better than violating the Constitution.”

It’s a matter of principle: “A labrador in power, with a regent – the Constitution doesn’t forbid that, so it’s acceptable.”

But such statements are polemical extremes, of course.

Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, says that Putin would only agree to a third term in an emergency. In the present situation, as Makarkin told Novye Izvestia, that doesn’t seem likely: “Even though so many people are proposing it.”

Yuri Sharandin, chairman of the Federation Council’s constitutional law committee, explained to Novye Izvestia that any referendum on amending the Constitution would be unconstitutional in itself, and thus unfeasible in legal terms.

Indeed, according to the Constitution, the relevant article of the Constitution can only be amended “by the set procedures for a federal constitutional law – that is, by a majority vote in the Duma and the Federation Council.” It would also have to be endorsed by at least two-thirds of regional legislatures.

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, leader of the United Russia party, said in April 2005 that the parliament will not vote to abolish the two-term limit. “We shall use our constitutional majority to prevent changes to the Constitution,” said Gryzlov.

Alexei Makarkin maintains that even if the Duma and Federation Council did provide a legislative foundation for Putin’s re-election, Putin would be unlikely to make use of it: “He understands that such a move would be condemned at the international level.” Therefore, Makarkin says that “Putin would only seek a third term in an emergency situation – if there’s a crisis, or if there are no other candidates, for example.”

And the candidate situation isn’t all that bad, says Kommersant: in the same Levada Center poll, 43% of respondents say they would be prepared to vote for any candidate endorsed by Putin. Only 14% say they would choose a different candidate, as a matter of principle, and 30% say their votes would depend on the circumstances. Kommersant notes that if the Kremlin puts enough effort into the campaign, some of these respondents might vote for the official successor as well.

Most importantly, polls show increasing confidence in First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, the favorite presidential candidate in the absence of Vladimir Putin.

In a Levada Center poll this May, Medvedev led the field with 10.3% support. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Medvedev’s rival and another potential successor, finished third with 7.2% – behind LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky (7.3%). Communist Party leader Gennnadi Zyuganov ranked fourth with 6.8%.

As Kommersant notes, this poll also provides a convincing answer to the question of why the Kremlin is seeking to remove the “against all candidates” option from ballot papers: 18% of respondents said they would choose that option – a higher percentage than any candidate recorded.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, co-leader of the Russian Republican Party, maintains that voters who choose the “against all candidates” option can be divided into three categories.

“The first group is made up of those who always vote like that,” says Ryzhkov in an article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “According to estimates, they probably amount to 5% at most. But they do have a right to vote in that way, and that right must be respected.”

There’s a second group: “Those who vote that way when they can’t decide which candidate to support. Finally, there’s a third group: “Those who vote that way deliberately, aiming to invalidate the election, because they would prefer to vote for candidates who haven’t been permitted to participate.”

Ryzhkov mostly uses examples from regional parliamentary elections to illustrate his proposed classification, but what he says is clearly applicable to federal elections as well – both parliamentary and presidential.

Ryzhkov says: “The ‘against all candidates’ option must be retained, primarily in order to uphold the rights of the third group of voters, since these citizens are making a conscious choice and without that option they would be denied the ability to express their will.”

In fact, according to Kommersant-Vlast magazine, it’s highly likely that protest-minded voters simply wouldn’t vote at all. Such a development would pose a serious danger for the Kremlin, especially in presidential elections, where the turnout threshold is 50%.

“Then again,” says Kommersant-Vlast, “since the Kremlin has full control over the Duma, there’s a fairly simple way to eliminate that danger – by reducing or even abolishing minimal turnout requirements.”

One way or another, says Kommersant, even if the “against all candidates” option is abolished, Medvedev would still have to work hard to improve his rating if he wants to be sure of victory, even in a second round of voting.

This work is being done. As the Vedomosti newspaper reports, citing data from the Media Analysis and Monitoring Center, news broadcasts on the national television networks (Channel One, the Rossiya Channel, NTV, TV Center, and Ren TV) between April 1 and June 1 mentioned Sergei Ivanov 140 times and mentioned Dmitri Medvedev 213 times. That provides a convincing explanation for the rise in Medvedev’s support rating.

All the same, experts told Vedomosti that the results of the Levada Center’s May poll shouldn’t be taken “too seriously.”

Valery Fedorov, head of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), said: “The difference between the ratings of the four leading candidates is no more than 3.4%, equivalent to the Levada Center’s margin of error.” So it would be premature to say that the chances of any potential candidates have increased substantially.

But Fedorov does agree that Medvedev is becoming more recognizable, saying that this is “primarily a consequence of active news policy.”

Andrei Milekhin, head of Romir Monitoring, says it’s too early to assess the chances of potential successors: “Eight months before the presidential election of 2000, fewer than 1% of respondents recognized Putin’s name. So a great deal may yet change before the election of 2008, and current polls are more like fortune-telling.”

Yuri Levada himself agrees that “the picture could change drastically between now and 2008, perhaps several times.” Levada’s explanation for the steady growth in support for a third term is that citizens “simply can’t see any worthy alternative candidates.”

Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Moscow Center told Kommersant: “The Kremlin just needs to do nothing until 2008 – and Operation Successor will be successful. All it has to do is provide periodic handouts of small sums via all kinds of national projects.”

That is what Medvedev is doing these days.

Most importantly, says Ryabov, “there shouldn’t be any reforms like the monetization of benefits, or any internal power-struggles like the current series of scandals and arrests.”

And then, according to Ryabov, the opposition won’t be able to offer any alternatives to the authorities, since it now has nothing left: “no institutions, procedures, or outstanding politicians who might inspire confidence among voters.”

Nothing at all – not even Connie the labrador.

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