Russia’s presidential race has barest semblance of free vote

March 1st, 2008 - 9:41 am ICT by admin  

By Alissa de Carbonnel
Moscow, March 1 (DPA) Russia has a healthy political system at first glance at the political poles represented in the upcoming presidential elections. There is the Communist Party headed by veteran Gennady Zyuganov, the far right represented by another stalwart, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal voters have been given Andrei Bogdanov, head of Russia’s Democratic Party.

But no observer doubts that the only ideological differences in the upcoming elections are pro-Kremlin or contra - the latter having been pressured from the race.

Analysts have not yet decided of what political stripe President Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev is, but riding on the coattails of his mentor’s popularity he is guaranteed victory on March 2.

State-owned pollster VTsIOM as well as the independent Levada centre show over 73 percent of voters supporting Medvedev.

So the question is why does the Kremlin seem at its best trying to undermine the legitimacy of an election in which its own candidate is set to triumph?

The liberal opposition lead by former chess champion Garry Kasparov and the head of the Union of Right Forces Boris Nemtsov blamed administrative bullying for their forced withdrawal from the run in December.

That left two “liberal” candidates waiting on the Central Election Committee to be registered as independents after submitting the 2 million signatures necessary in support of their nomination.

Former prime minister turned Kremlin critic Mikhail Kasyanov was shut out.

Election officials ruled too many of the signatures on Kasyanov’s lists were forged - a decision the opposition hopeful was quick to call a Kremlin dictate.

But the dark horse Bogdanov has had his candidacy stamped onto ballots without a hitch and like Icarus has charged toward the spotlight with a political profile that could not be more foreign to Russian voters.

Bogdanov, Russia’s youngest-ever presidential candidate at 38, heads Moscow’s Masonic lodge, has long-curly locks and is campaign on a platform of Russia’s accession to the European Union by 2009.

Analysts in Moscow called Bogdanov’s candidacy “empty” and said he was by no means a politician but a battle-scarred campaign strategist.

Bogdanov’s talent for campaigning earned him a scandal-soaked fame in the early 1990s. Alexander Kynev, an analyst with nongovernmental vote-monitor group Golos, said Bogdanov’s tactics included accusing opponents of bribing voters or paying homeless people to rally in support of rival candidates.

Sunday will mark Bogdanov’s sixth election, but Kynev said he garnered experience working with a Kremlin-linked PR company and as a campaign hand falsifying signatures for the Duma bid of Sergei Mavrodi, who managed Russia’s most famous pyramid scheme, MMM.

“Bogdanov is the project of the Kremlin’s chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov,” said analyst Alexei Mukhin with the Centre for Political Information.

“He is performing his assigned role as part of the Kremlin’s big project: the so-called ‘Operation Successor,’” Mukhin said in a recent interview.

Bogdanov’s Democratic Party is Russia’s second-oldest party and an “old brand” for Western observers.

“Those who don’t know Russia believe the thing is democratic,” Mukhin stressed.

The party is widely seen as a Kremlin project to channel away votes from other opposition parties to an unthreatening option.

But Kynev said, “if (the election) is an imitation (of democracy), it is to the point of absurdity.”

Having won fewer than 90,000 or 0.13 percent of the vote in December parliamentary elections, Bogdanov is not even a “spoiler” set to steal votes in this election, Mukhin agreed.

With Medvedev’s popularity shooting higher than Putin’s proud 71.3-percent victory in 2004, the Kremlin has switched gears aiming to make the presidential contest appear unfair, analysts Mukhin and Kynev said.

According to the current theory, the Kremlin is satisfied with an election run that holds only the barest semblance of a free vote because such a campaign keeps the focus on the Putin-Medvedev relationship.

Putin has promised to retain power by becoming prime minister under Medvedev’s presidency. Under such an arrangement there is little doubt among observers that Putin would be pulling the strings.

A fair election could confuse the issue by lending Medvedev a stand-alone legitimacy.

“It is Byzantine politics. The Kremlin wants Medvedev to understand that the elections are unfair,” Kynev said.

In this way, Medvedev knows he will be inheriting Putin’s place and popularity, not winning it at the polls, he said.

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