The indisputable President
Do Russian elections, particularly to decide on a new President, border on the farce? That was the sort of question that did the rounds when the Soviet dispensation had been in charge of managing such affairs. But the truth came out in the first and last Open Elections in 1989, not long before the historic fall of the Iron Curtain. A Russian tourist guide had then famously observed that she had trained in English, to eventually settle down in the United States because she was thoroughly disillusioned with her homeland. "In earlier elections, it used to be like a picnic and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. But this time, there was so much mudslinging among the candidates on television that we cannot tell the truth from the lie. This is all so dirty and to think it has been happening for years; I am disgusted." Many others shared her thoughts and feelings in St Petersburg. But, with the USSR having made way for different times, are things any different under the Russian Federation? Is there genuine interest in the outcome of the forthcoming elections or are the results a foregone conclusion? For those familiar with the political scenario overseen by Moscow, the latter, sadly, would seem to be the natural answer. So, is Vladimir Putin set to retain absolute power till 2024? Going by all accounts, it would seem so. That there would be "elections" would lead to the impression that a democratic process is in place. But it is common knowledge that, with the Kremlin's approval, oligarchs seem to be having a jolly good time. Unconfirmed reports have it that Putin is more than a friend of theirs. Indeed, 18 years after Vladimir Putin first became President, attitudes towards the election range from disinterest to cynicism. Most ordinary Russians consider any outcome other than Putin's victory unthinkable, and the Kremlin's consultants find it challenging to keep up even the semblance of a competitive race. Yet, the March elections are shaping up as a watershed moment for Russia's political future. Beneath the surface of the expected Putin victory, there is hectic activity and speculation about the president's future, about the potential for a constitutional shake-up and even about just how much control Vladimir Putin exerts over daily events. "The question is not about whom voters choose to lead the country over the next six years, but rather whether, when and how Putin hands power to a successor." So far, Putin has kept everyone guessing. In fact, the president has yet to declare whether he intends to run at all. Putin has transited to a different political persona in the course of the past few years. As a well known Russian observer remarked, "He is the indisputable leader and shall stay that way."