Thursday, 23 February 2012

Electioneering in Russia- Setting a President?

Putin supporters head to the rally. The authorities provided them with coaches and even city buses and closed roads for them.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's supporters are rallying at Luzhnetsky stadium in central Moscow. They want him to be president for a third term after Russia's upcoming presidential election. There are tens of thousands of them and at least in public they say they have not been forced or threatened to come. It is harder to know if they have been paid to turn out. When I went down to see the crowds there were certainly many of them. Buses had come from as far away as Stavropol in the south of Russia. The man himself is also making a rare public address to them and they seem well organised to receive him. Perhaps suspiciously too well organised. I was asked more than once where 'tribune D' was gathering for instance. There is no such military style marshalling at the opposition rallies which are far more spontaneous. It is also Russian man's day, a famous public holiday and celebration. Do all of these people really prefer attending a rally for a politician they all seem to think win will anyway rather than enjoying their public holiday?

Why bother enjoying a day off when you and your fellow factory workers can stand out in the snow?

However there are genuine displays of political passion and support for Putin amongst the crowds. Rally goers also make fair points when they say they say they are terrified of renewed chaos in Russia. The 1990's were a miserable and impoverished time for most Russians as oligarchs stole former state assets and swindled millions out of their money. Organised crime proliferated and Russia's financial collapse of 1998 ruined the lives of an entire generation. Putin helped control the situation, though he used autocratic methods to do it. Many Russians are understandably thankful he did bring stability back to Russia. Those that oppose him say he simply brought the corruption that flourished outside the state, inside it. Corruption is one of the single biggest issues facing Russia now and whoever becomes the next president will have to try and beat, or give up and join it.

Pro-Putin supporters also say they see no real alternative in the other candidates.

Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist party (they 're not real Communists anymore) is an old veteran of Russian politics. His party have remained the only consistent opposition in Russia (they kicked the ruling United Russia party out of St.Petersburg in December 2011 parliamentary elections) but he's never won the presidency despite many tries. The Communist support base is largely among older Russians and he isn't taken seriously by younger generations.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. He is known for his firebrand style, shouting and fighting in Russia's parliament, the Duma. His party has also come in for criticism for attracting too much support from Russian nationalists, some of them disturbingly hard line. However many agree that despite his rude and controversial comments he does really care about Russia and isn't too want to try and stage manage politics like Putin has done.

Sergei Mironov is the leader of the 'A Just Russia' party. He was the speaker of Russia's upper house, the Federation Council until May 2011 when Putin's United Russia Party forced him out. He had already set up A Just Russia back in 2006, most said with Putin's blessing as a false opposition. But after he lost his role as speaker of the Federation Council his tone changed and he became a lot more critical of Putin and the Kremlin. But he is still seen as a weak candidate without a major reform program or much support outside his small party.

The fourth, and for some the brightest hope, is Mikhail Prokhorov. He's one of those Oligarchs I mentioned earlier, but who knows how he may have come about his hideously huge wealth. This might not be a bad thing, say many Russians. He 's already got so much money why would he want to steal more from us, they reason. But he's a newcomer to Russian politics (at least publicly) and many say they don't expect him to be able to change anything. Some say that may help Prokhorov, not being tainted by former associations. But other Russians suspect him of being a put up candidate by the Kremlin, not an unreasonable suspicion in a country where no dirty political trick is ruled out.

Putin has his share of nationalists in tow as well.

Putin undoubtedly has the most resources on his side. The power of the state, the Russian media and vast networks of patronage spreading out to the regions through his party (Putin's not actually a member but it is a mere technicality), United Russia. Even opposition groups are admitting it's most likely Putin will win March the 4th's presidential election in the first round. Most Russians also think that he does probably really care about trying to create a better Russia. But that doesn't stop the genuine unease or even anger that Putin doesn't want to give up power after a decade at the reins. It seems even Putin was shocked by the mass protests that broke out in December at widespread and well documented allegations of electoral fraud in the parliamentary elections. These tens of thousands supporting him, whether they came of their own will or by bribes or threats, will bring Putin a welcome feeling that his position is buttressed, not just by the power of his old security service friends and the agents of the state, but also by real Russians.

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