For Vladimir Putin, winning Russia's presidency may be the easy part
The Russian election has been engineered for a Vladimir Putin victory. His true challenge will come afterward, when he has to rule a country increasingly dissatisfied with his rule.
Vladimir Putin, the former and almost-certain-to-be future president of Russia, appears to be heading for a solid first-round victory in March 4 polls. But winning this race on a track that's been engineered to give him all the advantages, against a pack of rivals culled to ensure no surprises, might prove to be the easy part for Mr. Putin.Skip to next paragraph
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Until recently, most Russians appeared to meekly accept the preordained outcomes of Putin's "managed democracy." During his previous terms as president, Putin succeeded in stabilizing Russian society, growing the economy – largely on the back of soaring oil prices, Russia's main export – and restoring some sense of national pride. Russians accepted the sharp limits on free speech and political choice as the price of relative prosperity and personal freedoms.
But that acceptance appears to be over. This time, Putin faces an aroused electorate, including tens of thousands who have taken to the streets repeatedly since December to protest the system's rigged nature, the tightly limited spectrum of available choices, and Putin's insistence on returning for a third presidential term after a stint as prime minister.
IN PICTURES – Russians protest Putin's party
Putin can no longer count on the stratospheric public approval ratings that allowed him to walk to a 71 percent reelection victory in 2004 and secured his handpicked protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, 70 percent of the vote in 2008. But according to a poll released this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, Putin's public approval rating has fallen from a high of 85 percent in mid-2008 to about 65 percent this month. The survey predicts that Putin will win comfortably on March 4, with over 60 percent of the votes.
After widespread public outrage over reports of fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, this voting day will see something new for Russia: Up to 50,000 volunteer monitors will swarm over polling stations around the country, keeping a close eye on ballot boxes and watching votes get counted.
The campaign's final days have seen some odd twists, which suggest Putin's handlers may not fully trust the pollsters' projections. This week Russian security services announced, with great media fanfare, that they had thwarted a plot by Chechen terrorists to assassinate Putin after the election – a claim that critics ridiculed as a desperate election ploy.