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Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 2, 2002

Liberal Alternative to Putin.
Why we need a right-wing challenger to Putin in 2004

by Leonid Sedov, National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM)

The key postulate of contemporary Russian politics is that the political stage is dominated by Vladimir Putin. Few doubt that he will win the next presidential elections. Polls indicate that 47% of voters are prepared to vote for Putin, and even more (76%) approve of his performance as President. It is hard to imagine any event that could change this situation significantly. Even though such a high percentage of respondents approve of Putin's performance, at the same time two-thirds of respondents consider that his efforts to resolve the problem of Chechnya have been completely or mostly unsuccessful (and 41% doubt he will ever succeed); 61% don't believe Putin has succeeded in improving living standards (and 36% highly doubt that this will happen); 48% believe that Putin's policies aimed at restoring order in Russia have not had any results (and 28% see no prospect of this happening); 42% view Putin's policies on protecting civil rights and liberties as ineffective (and 37% fear that he may establish a harsh dictatorship supported by the military).

Most people hold that Putin's only success has been to improve Russia's international standing and two-thirds of respondents recognize his achievements there. Only a quarter of respondents do not accept this (and 20% are concerned about the prospect of a deterioration in relations with the West). Overall, it would appear that successes in other fields compensate forthe head of state's failures in the aforementioned areas. For example, Muscovites aged between 30 and 40 are the least satisfied with Putin's efforts to improve living standards; but this same group shows the highest approval rating for his foreign policy efforts. As a result, only 20% of respondents say they completely disapprove of Putin's performance; they represent mainly the poor and elderly.

However, respondents in their thirties, while approving highly of Putin's performance (77%), are not as inclined to vote for him (49%). Voters in this age group are more inclined not to vote in the presidential elections at all, or vote against all candidates. Apart from the 20% of respondents who are not satisfied with Putin, 29% approve of Putin but who will not vote for him. Their attitude toward the president may not be described as a vote of confidence, but rather a sense that there is no alternative to Putin. The typical response is: "I have nothing bad to say about him." They hold no great hopes of Putin, but have no confidence in any other politicians. In particular, they really dislike the United Russia party, and they don't have confidence in Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov or his government's capacity to improve the situation in Russia.

Where Can a Poor Democrat Turn?

Given this myriad of political preferences, Putin's main rival - Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov - cannot count on more than 10% of the vote. Representatives from the right wing would obtain a combined total of about 4% of the vote. In this situation, it would be a grave error for the democratic parties to refuse to participate in the ppresidential elections. Even though any candidate they field is bound to lose, the possibility of coming second could provide security for the future.

It could also be a mistake to field several democratic candidates rather than one. This would not only disperse votes, but also raise the number of democratically-minded voters who would abstain from voting, displeased by the continuing disunity on the right. Another mistake would be to underestimate the need to unite around a platform that is truly oppositional and not just a pseudo-oppositional - or even confrontational approach to Putin's policies. Half-hearted opposition would make the forthcoming political battle lose any real meaning, and completely discredit the liberal idea. Of course, such a course of action carries substantial risks, in view of the present regime's attitude to real opposition and the fact that Putin's second term is bound to be even more decisive in terms of creating a "controlled democracy".

However, "automatically" deciding to field the leader of either the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) or Yabloko as the right-wing presidential candidate would deprive that candidate of a substantial share of legitimacy. It would mean discounting the opinions of at least 25% of democratic voters: those who vote for neither the SPS nor Yabloko. Thus, another method forselecting an alternative candidate seems more sensible.

As soon as the official results of the Duma elections are announced, the democratic forces should call a conference, with representatives from all democratic parties to have taken part in the Duma elections, commensurate to the votes obtained in those elections. The approach to the parties here ought to be as liberal as possible.

This conference should be a forum for serious discussion of the nominated candidates, their policy programmes, and their chances of coming second. It would be preferable for all nominees to gather for a separate meeting to decide on a clear policy platform common to them all, which would enable each of them to be considered as representing the democratic forces. Unlike the option initially proposed by SPS leader Boris Nemtsov, this nomination method is more democratic, while the voices of the "minority parties" would play the role of a third force ensuring greater diversity and conscious choice.

What Do Ordinary Voters Think?

In its polls, VTsIOM has deliberately included a question on whether the SPS and Yabloko should field a single presidential candidate. Poll results indicate that almost 50% of respondents were not interested in this issue at all, while the other 50% were almost evenly divided (28% in favour of a single candidate, and 25% against). Around 71% of Grigory Yavlinsky's voters favour a single candidate, but 28% of them would prefer Boris Nemtsov to represent the two parties. In general, Yabloko voters are showing every sign of being weary of their party's leader. Only 18% of Yabloko supporters intend to vote for Yavlinsky at the presidential election, while 47% intend to vote for Putin.

Under the circumstances, Nemtsov is likely to be successful at the conference - even if Yabloko gets more votes at the Duma elections and thus has more delegates. The "third force" could play a decisive role here. But the conference might also decide to nominate a surprise candidate (a business leader or liberal state official); some kind of "democratic Putin" - in the sense that this candidate's appearance on the political stage would be unexpected. That could be a strong move in terms of the prospects of a real battle for the post of president in 2008.

See also:
State Duma Elections 2003

Nezavisimaya Gazeta October 2, 2002

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