The implications of Vladimir Putin’s announcement

What will the next Duma be like, now that the election has effectively been transformed into a referendum on confidence in the president? And if Putin becomes prime minister, will there be any work at all for the next president?

By agreeing to head United Russia’s candidate list, President Vladimir Putin has determined the fate of this party – and his own fate, to some extent. Yet he has also increased uncertainty about many other key factors. What will the next Duma be like, now that the election has effectively been transformed into a referendum on confidence in the president? And if Putin becomes prime minister, will there be any work at all for the next president?

1. Which parties will make it into the Duma?

United Russia’s situation is clear enough: it is guaranteed to win a constitutional majority (two-thirds of Duma seats) or something close to that. The party that will be hardest hit by Putin’s decision is Just Russia. Its status as “a party supporting the president” has been irretrievably lost; Putin has made it very clear that he doesn’t need Just Russia’s support. Only recently, Just Russia was being described as the second Kremlin party, and it certainly had a substantial support group in and around the authorities. Now it has been defeated.

The LDPR and the Communist Party have enough loyal voters to weather sensational developments like the announcement that Putin will head United Russia’s list. But the already-weak chances of the right-wing parties have now become even more ephemeral; regardless of ideological disagreements with United Russia, some of their voters will follow Putin.

2. What’s the point of the Duma election now?

By heading United Russia’s list, Putin is letting it be understood that he could become prime minister; in effect, he’s explaining that all is well and there won’t be any upheavals during the transition. And if that is the case, the average voter may decide that there’s no need to vote on December 2; they might as well get on with their holiday shopping, since the election outcome is already obvious. Thus, we can now expect a drive to boost voter turnout – aimed at United Russia’s supporters and opponents alike. Higher turnout will give opposition parties an extra chance of picking up the votes of those who “protest at home.” If they can be motivated somehow, they will come out and vote – not for United Russia.

3. What should the next president be like?

In speaking of whether he might become prime minister, Putin named two obviously feasible preconditions: United Russia’s victory in December, and the election of a competent new president in March 2008. Yet Putin’s chief criterion for the new president seems to be this: he should be someone “with whom I can work in a pair.” Surely there’s no need to explain who would be the leader in such a pair, and who would be the follower.

Directly or indirectly, Putin is sure to endorse a candidate of his own in the presidential election – but that person won’t be perceived as a “successor.” What was one of the major political threats in the last political season? Many high-ranking sources told us that the next president must not be identified too soon, or everyone in the ruling elite would rush to curry favor with him. Now that risk has been eliminated: there’s no need to curry favor with anyone other than Putin. This may be the most effective solution any president has ever found to the problem of becoming a lame duck.

4. Will there be any work left for the next president?

The prime minister can be a political leader, and a moral authority figure, and the head of the Duma majority – but there are still some things he can’t do. For example, all security and law enforcement ministers (“siloviki”) report to the president, not to the prime minister (a decision made by Boris Yeltsin in 1994). The siloviki are a force in themselves, whichever way you look at it; and dividing centers of power in this manner – one person having the powers, while another has a force behind him – sets up the preconditions for dual power. At present, however, almost all the siloviki are members of Putin’s inner circle, and he is sure of their loyalty. A more fundamental problem is that the prime minister’s powers in foreign affairs and diplomacy are very limited. This area is one of Putin’s strong suits. Then again, when communicating with the chancellor of Germany, for example, few recall that Germany also has a president. The prescription for this kind of relationship is as follows: a parliamentary republic with the prime minister as its de facto leader. Could this be the purpose of securing a constitutional majority in the next Duma?