Chris Weafer of UralSib, Russia -
The Duma election brings to an end the tedious prologue to the main event; President Putin choosing from what position he will remain the country's de-facto leader after he hands over power next May and who he will choose to be Russia's third president. The result adequately delivers what he asked for, ie. a popular mandate to have the moral authority to make those decisions. Criticism over the handling of the election from foreign governments should be short-lived as while the turnout and result was good enough to allow Putin and Kremlin strategists claim it as a mandate to retain control, it is was not high enough to undermine the election credibility. Now that this phase is over, investors hope to have some greater clarity on succession before the end of December - a month when people in the Kremlin have a history of causing surprises. The focus will now switch to guessing Putin's next role and, inevitably, how quickly he will return to the presidency.
With a substantial portion of votes counted United Russia looks set to take over 63% of the vote followed by the Communist party with almost 12%, the LDPR with just under 9% and A Just Russia with 8%. That means that, under the new proportionate representation system, United Russia will have 310 seats in the Duma (300 in the last one) and that the three pro-Kremlin parties will have a combined block of 392 seats or 87% of the votes. While the Kremlin was able to count on the support of the last Duma to pass any legislation, it has an even more comfortable position for the next four years.
The turnout looks like being over 60%. That is important because while a majority for United Russia was never in doubt, the number of people turning out to vote needed to be higher than the last election turnout (just over 56%) to deliver the support for the moral authority that Putin asked for. Too high a percentage would actually have served to undermine the credibility of the election, while a turnout of less than last time would have undermined the Kremlin.
In terms of how to achieve that desire to remain the country's de-facto leader there are of course many options, but the two categories basically either inside the legislative structure or inside the Kremlin power pyramid. The former could involve a role as head of United Russia inside the Duma and assuming the position of Duma speaker. The latter could be as head of the Security Council or something similar. Whatever option is chosen, it will be one with a public platform that allows Putin to air his views. It is almost certainly not a role that is subservient to the next president even as that person will be chosen by Putin. That would simply be too destabilizing after even a short period of time. It is possible that Putin won't tell us of his plans until after the March election of even after next summer - and a big reason for that is because the next role as probably not yet been decided.
Meantime, the attention now switches to the next president. Fifteen political parties have the right to nominate a candidate by the deadline of December 23. But then they must support the nomination with at least 2m signatures by the final deadline of January 16. But, and critically, the four parties that now have representation in the Duma will be exempt from that requirement and their nominated candidates will automatically contest the March 2 election. The United Russia party will almost certainly nominate the person supported by Putin - that is how the electorate will see it - and that person will most likely be the next president. The most likely name is the current PM Zubkov. Putin has specifically linked him with the role when he spelled out the ideal credentials of the next president and then later referred to Zubkov using the same phraseology.
Chris Weafer is Chief Strategist at UralSib in Moscow
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