A surprise new challenger to favourite Vladimir Putin for the March 2012 presidential elections has appeared in Siberia: governor of the region of Irkutsk Dmitry Mezents. However, he looks more like a spoiler candidate pushed to run as punishment for political ineptitude than a serious candidate to take the Kremlin hot seat.
The Irkutsk railway workers trade union announced they are nominating Mezents as presidential candidate at a meeting on December 14. "This was an unexpected decision for me," said Mezents, according to Ria Novosti, as he agreed to the nomination.
A political nobody, the Irkutsk governor was a colleague of Putin at St Petersburg city hall in the 1990s and was appointed to head the region by then-President Putin in 2004. However, far from being a reflection of his powerful contacts, it seems his candidacy is a penalty for his ineptitude, after featuring in a series of local debacles over the past year or so that have brought ruling party United Russia into disrepute.
In June 2011, an Aeroflot flight from Irkutsk to Moscow was delayed on the runway by an hour so that Mezents could climb aboard. The event generated many headlines claiming that it illustrated perfectly the selfish and high-handed attitude of the political elite in Russia.
He was also accused of failing to get a grip on forest fires in Irkutsk region in September this year, harvesting a sharp rebuke from President Dmitry Medvedev. To round off an annus horribilis, in the summer a car belonging to the Irkutsk regional office in Moscow ran over a pedestrian in the capital, although the governor was not in the car at the time, writes business daily Vedomosti.
Analysts suggest that amidst the large protests sparked by the December 4 parliamentary elections, Putin is now desperate to avoid a second-round run off in the presidential race. That has set antennas twitching over each and every candidate that emerges, given that none of them have any chance of winning.
Suspicion has already cropped up over the campaign of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who announced on December 12 that he will run. That said, having already fluffed his mandate to lead the Right Cause spoiler party into the Duma election by trying to actually campaign rather than just drain liberal votes, he's unlikely to have been the Kremlin's first choice to perform the task for the presidential race.
Mezents, with his connections to the leading candidate and poor PR record, looks a much safer bet. Vladimir Yakunin, one of Putin's closest allies and head of Russian Railways, happened to be in Irkutsk on a working visit at the time Mezents' nomination was announced.
Mezents candidacy is meant to increase the appearance of competition in the vote, and the stick he will take and inevitable electoral humiliation will be the price for his political ineptitude.
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