Putin plan: more democratic?
If he became prime minister alongside a weaker president, some analysts say that would create a better balance of power.
Not unlike Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf or Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Russian president Vladimir Putin seems intent on extending his supreme power, even if his constitutional welcome is wearing thin.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Putin, who has repeatedly pledged to leave office when his second term expires next March, this week hinted that he may seek to become prime minister after stepping down as president.
Analysts say his immense popularity and his loyal political base would enable him to wield significant power in that post, while critics suggest he plans to modify the Constitution to weaken the presidency – effectively keeping his current role while switching titles.
Ironically, the net effect of such changes may be to democratize Russia's top-heavy political system and give parliament more say than it has had under either former President Boris Yeltsin or his chosen successor – Putin.
Under the current setup, the president nominates the prime minister and can dissolve the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, if it refuses to confirm his choice.
If Putin claims the top government job as leader of the majority party in parliament, United Russia, this could create checks and balances where none have previously existed. Putin paved the way for such a move this week by announcing he would run on United Russia's ticket in the December parliamentary elections.
"It's strange that democratic reforms should be enacted just for the sake of a single person's wishes," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, an independent Moscow think tank. "But if Putin's plan goes ahead, we could see a double vector emerge in Russia's political system, with a strong prime minister and a strong president, where we previously had only a single one."
Putin to join United Russia party
Speaking to a conference of the United Russia party, a political colossus created in early 2001 by the Kremlin to tame the once-unruly State Duma, Putin announced that he will head the party's electoral list in parliamentary polls slated for Dec. 2. Asked if he would consider becoming prime minister later on, Putin responded that "heading the government is realistic, but it's too early to consider it."
That means Putin is leaving, but he's really going to stay, say critics. "Putin is setting things up so that he and his group will still be in power for a third term after the parliamentary and [March] presidential elections are over," says Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the liberal Yabloko party, which was squeezed out of parliament when United Russia swept the field in 2003. "We are against this, and all attempts to extend power," by undemocratic maneuvering, he says.
But leaders of the United Russia party, which has blanketed Moscow in recent weeks with billboards reading: "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Triumph," were jubilant.
Putin's public popularity has seldom fallen below 70 percent since he entered the Kremlin almost 8 years ago, and was holding at 80 percent in August, according to the independent Levada Center in Moscow.
"The fact that Vladimir Putin will go to elections together with the party gives us confidence that United Russia will be able to form a parliamentary majority faction in the fifth State Duma," Andrei Vorobyov, a top party official, told the independent Interfax news agency. Crucially, a two-thirds majority would enable the party to pass amendments to Russia's 1993 Constitution.
Mr. Mukhin confirms the likelihood of such amendments.
"We expect some constitutional changes that will strengthen the hand of the prime minister and weaken that of the president," he says. "Essentially, we shall see a president who concerns himself with foreign affairs and ceremonial head of state functions, while domestic policy will be handled by the government – which means Putin."