Comment: Why Putin might call early elections

By bne IntelliNews January 16, 2007

Peter Reddaway of George Washington University -

In the immediate future, President Vladimir Putin and his associates probably won't take a decision either for or against pre-term elections for the Duma, which are due to be held at the end of this year.

However, in the event that negative political or economic trends should worsen and start to provoke popular discontent, his goal would be to minimize their electoral impact by holding elections for the Duma quickly, before the discontent could gain momentum and become politically dangerous

If Putin does call early elections, his main goals would probably be:

1. to act before he becomes a lame duck in the last part of his presidency and loses some of his clout;

2. to achieve surprise, and thus be able either to push through more easily his preferred scenario for getting his chosen successor elected – against possible opposition from colleagues urging a third term out of fear that his departure would threaten their futures;

3. to obtain through early Duma elections a majority for Unified Russia that might not be attainable later.

Whether or not any pre-term elections are actually called, urgently conducted legislative, administrative and political preparations for the contingency of early Duma elections are now virtually complete. Thus, if such elections should become desirable to Putin, he is already in a position to set them in motion.

Separately, some analysts have posited Putin’s early resignation from the presidency, but with Duma elections still being held on schedule. Presidential elections are scheduled for March 2008.

Among other things, they have noted his past statements about never having wanted the job of president, and disliking the severe strains that it imposes on him. Observers have also claimed that he is impatient to move to a less pressured job, for example at the top of the energy sector or an international organization.

In addition, if circumstances should require, Putin could, from a technical viewpoint, combine early Duma elections with his own resignation. Among other things, simultaneous elections would facilitate the PR aspect of his resignation.

Finally, it is perfectly possible that both elections will be held on schedule. This would satisfy Putin’s instinctive preference for orderliness. This preference is sometimes trumped by his equally powerful instinct to do whatever will safeguard his most basic interests, namely his personal security and his financial prosperity.

Presidential instincts

Putin can be said to have three basic instincts. The first is to be cautious, wary, and vigilant about defending his deepest interests. As just stated, he considers these to be his political and physical security, and his financial prosperity. In the latter regard his appetite appears to be larger than that of former president Boris Yeltsin’s.

His second basic instinct is to be orderly and predictable, to play by the rules of his personal clan and of the wider "corporation" of the special services in which he made his career, and to follow regular political procedures.

At this point, problems start to arise for him. On a few occasions the "regularity instinct" has come into conflict with, and been trumped by, the political security instinct. This can be seen in the impulsiveness behind his dismissals of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in 2004 and Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov in 2006, and perhaps in his decision to have the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested in 2003.

Another problem is that - at least since 1999 - Putin has not belonged exclusively to one clan. In addition to his "natural" St Petersburg clan, in 1996-99 he was also absorbed into the "Yeltsin Family clan", which he probably cannot leave for financial reasons, if the rumours are to be believed.

This difficult and probably insoluble situation makes Putin potentially vulnerable to pressure and even blackmail – both by the Family and also, for example, by Igor Sechin and his associates, who badly want him to remain in office. This is one of the main reasons why the scenario of a third presidential term for Putin can by no means be ruled out, even though it goes against his basic instinct for orderliness and rule-following.

Certainly, there has been widespread and mounting pressure on him to serve a third term, both from regional groups and from some prominent politicians, pressure that must be set against numerous statements by Putin and some key colleagues that he will not do this.

A third instinct of Putin’s, which can probably also be called basic, appears to have grown stronger in recent years. As many commentators have noted, he enjoys the pleasures of life, chafes at the constraints placed on him by the presidency, and may therefore be strongly attracted by the idea of departing earlier than in March 2008.

In particular, the presidency leaves him much less time than he would like for sports, travel, leisure, and, in general, enjoying his wealth. It also imposes on him greater psychological stress than he likes or was prepared for by his previous career. Political dilemmas constantly force him into messy compromises, humiliating reversals, and the painful breaking of promises. And myriad individuals and groups try to obtain political or financial favours from him, often in the most devious ways.

My conclusion is that the potential conflicts between Putin’s three basic instincts, conflicts that are aggravated by his simultaneous membership of two incompatible clans, are bound to become more acute as the election season draws near. This increases the chances that he will not be able to control the succession to the extent that he would like, and possibly not at all. It also increases the unpredictability of the circumstances in which succession issues are likely to play out. These circumstances are already unpredictable, because personality and informal groups are often the key factors in a Russian polity where institutions are weak and have become steadily weaker in recent years.

My broad conclusion is that Putin has not as yet decided on any early elections, and it may be that he strongly hopes that he will not have to do so at any stage. He may be keen to leave office in regular fashion in 2008, hoping in this way to restore some of his democratic credentials in the eyes of the West. However, in certain circumstances he might feel obliged to organize early elections. A quick, convenient, and constitutional mechanism for doing this is available to him.

Peter Reddaway is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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