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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Humiliating Defeat for Putin in Samara?

The Kremlin suffered a humiliating defeat in a mayoral race in Samara over the weekend, showing that Putin's 70%+ popularity ratings are filled with propaganda. Or did it? This could be a harbinger of yet another round of assaults on democratic politics as the Kremlin's fundamental weakness is revealed. Or it could be a sham election with the Kremlin pulling the strings. The International Herald Tribune reports:

The main Kremlin-backed party lost a mayoral race in Russia on Monday in what commentators said marked the rise of a new pro-government party that will play the role of a loyal opposition before key presidential elections in 2008.The Party of Life's candidate Viktor Tarkhov won the weekend mayoral vote in the central Volga city of Samara by 56.37 percent to unseat the incumbent mayor, United Russia's Georgy Limansky, who got 40.55 percent, the local electoral commission said.

The victory of the Party of Life, which at the end of this month is to merge with the nationalist Rodina (Motherland) and the Party of Pensioners, is seen as an important signal of the new political force's ascending fortunes. "The second party of power is close to victory over the first one," the independent Kommersant daily ironically headlined its story on the election Monday, published before results had come in.

United Russia has dominated the political landscape in recent years under President Vladimir Putin, who has been accused of rolling back post-Soviet democratic freedoms by squeezing out opposition parties and stifling the independent media since coming to office in 2000. The parties announced in August they were joining forces to create a new, as-yet-unnamed party to compete with United Russia, which holds a massive majority in the lower parliament house, the State Duma. The Party of Life is led by a close Putin ally, upper house speaker Sergei Mironov.

"This is a Kremlin strategy to create a two-party system with one ruling party and a so-called opposition," said Olga Khrystanovskaya, a sociologist from the Russian Academy of Sciences who is an expert on the Russian political elite . "This is of course an imitation of an opposition, whose main purpose is to ensure that the Kremlin keeps hold of power," she added.

Russia will hold parliamentary elections in 2007 and then a presidential vote in 2008, in which Putin is constitutionally barred from standing for a third consecutive term. There has been feverish speculation about the likely successor to Putin — the two main candidates touted at present are the hawkish defense minister Sergei Ivanov and the youthful deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev — as well as the immensely popular president's future plans.

The Russian leader joked at a meeting with foreign media executives earlier this year that he might form an opposition party and start criticizing everyone. Khrystanovskaya said that it was not inconceivable that Putin — who has been rumored to be considering taking over as head of the Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom — might become an opposition leader and stand again for president in 2012. "I don't think it was a joke. I don't exclude that Putin may completely unexpectedly lead this opposition party, becoming a mild critic of the government who can return to power in four years," she said.

Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst from the Indem think-tank, said Putin was unlikely to head the Party of Life, but predicted it would prove an effective tool for mopping up opposition support that would otherwise go to populist Kremlin critics."The Kremlin would prefer United Russia to be totally dominant, but Russians stubbornly protest by voting for the opposition. So they came up with this scheme to capture opposition votes," he said.

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