Russia elections won't pave the way for a Putin dictatorship

Anyone who thinks that Vladmir Putin’s party United Russia Party will cruise to power in this weekend's parliamentary elections – and that this is the first step in his inevitable rise to dictatorship – had better think again.

Russia will conduct important Parliamentary elections this weekend. Yes, elections – with all the dangers and opportunities that elections hold for incumbent parties, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s.

Anyone who thinks that Mr. Putin’s United Russia Party will cruise to power as the first step in his inevitable rise to dictatorship (after a projected easy victory in the 2012 presidential elections) had better think again. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Putin’s party and his new Popular Front initiative (a coalition of his ruling political party, trade groups, and nongovernmental organizations) have sizable support. But his United Russia party does not have a majority and certainly not the constitutional majority of two-thirds of the State Duma, according to public opinion surveys.

Two opposition parties taken together – the Communists and Liberal Democrats – are favored by nearly a quarter of the electorate, and there are other parties vying for voters, too.

Putin will have to forge a coalition government among disparate factions to have any chance of governing effectively if he retakes the presidency next March after a separate election. That won’t be easy, and the messy process is sure to disprove the Myth of Putin – that the former and likely future president plans to reconstitute the Soviet Union as his own, personal plaything.

Putin stepped down as Russia’s president in 2008, became prime minister, and remains the country’s most popular politician. He is widely seen as a man of the people, a veteran leader with a populist touch. His image is that of a fighter for the common man who can also stand toe-to-toe with other heads of state and negotiate successfully on Russia’s behalf.

His political party, however, has not fared so well. Critics have labeled the United Russia Party the “Party of Crooks and Thieves.”  Its missteps, mismanagement, and stultification have caused it to fall in the polls. To remain a leading voice, it was in need of a serious overhaul.

And that’s what Putin has done. Without much notice in the West, Putin reached out last May to allies, including civic groups and nongovernmental organizations, to form the Popular Front. His goal was to motivate the increasingly disillusioned electorate to back a refreshed and more unified ruling party.

The switch has helped. Opponents complain that the organization puts a new gloss on the old names and old faces of the past. But close examination reveals otherwise.

The Popular Front has turned out to be, well, popular. It has energized the fading United Russia Party by bringing new ideas and lots of new candidates – roughly half of the old guard has been replaced with newcomers. The party’s decline in the polls appears to have finally been reversed.

Putin is also not the same person he was when he left the presidency nearly four years ago. He is eager for a new start with a broader – and different – set of advocates and proposals, some of which will not be welcomed by everyone. In particular, like every other major government, Russia will have to adopt some painful retrenchments of its public pension plans in order to stay fiscally sound. Putin has been unafraid to say so despite a likely public backlash.

In any case, the simple-minded notion that Russia will soon be subject once again to one-man rule is ridiculous.  In fact, a good case can be made that Putin will have to deal with more democracy than Russia has had to cope with in its history.

He will probably have to compromise with several minority parties before he will even know who his governing coalition is. In addition, significant opposition parties will also remain in place to heckle his every move.

Putin is a strong man, but that does not mean that he will be Russia’s strongman in a despotic sense. In fact, he couldn’t even if he wanted. There have been bumps in the road and ongoing issues, but Russia has been on a course toward open markets and democracy for more than 20 years. Putin not only knows that, but he will face the situation head on when Russians go to the polls next month and speak for themselves.

Andranik Migranyan is director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a New York-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving relations between Russia and the US.

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