Analysis - Putin powers ahead in Russian presidential race
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dmitry Medvedev is in danger of losing Russia's presidential race before it has even started.
Despite hinting he wants a second term, the president has sunk deeper into Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's shadow in the past few weeks and disappointed supporters by failing to announce he will run in the presidential election in March.
Putin, by contrast, has been energetically gearing up for a parliamentary election on December 4 that could launch his own presidential campaign and looks every bit the "alpha dog" he was once portrayed as in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.
"Regardless of the outcome of Russia's presidential election, Prime Minister Putin is poised to remain Russia's top political authority. He is the current kingmaker, and shows no intention of leaving the political scene," said Cliff Kupchan, a Russia specialist at Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based consultancy.
"Regarding the presidency, ambiguity remains on what choice Putin will make. But his active agenda and political strength, especially compared to Medvedev's slipping clout, suggest that Putin will probably return as president."
Putin, 58, has been shown on television riding a motor bike, scuba diving and scaling a climbing wall, and looked as much at ease chatting to youths on a beach this summer as discussing the global economy with foreign experts last week.
He is deliberately keeping Russians guessing about whether he or Medvedev, 46, will run in March -- or whether he will continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes next year as prime minister or in some other role.
If he declares his hand too soon, one of them -- particularly Medvedev -- could become a lame duck. Delaying the decision prolongs uncertainty for foreign investors who are holding back until they know who will be in charge next year.
Despite the silence, there is a growing consensus among political analysts that Putin wants to remain in power.
Many say he wants to return to the post he held from 2000 to 2008 as president of the world's largest country and biggest oil producer. Others say Putin could remain prime minister or take on some other role with the status of national leader.
"I think Putin has decided. It is just a question of whether he wants to come back as president or stay as an even more powerful prime minister," said Alexander Rahr, an expert on Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Putin could reveal his plans at a congress of his United Russia party on Friday and Saturday. But many political analysts think he will wait until after the parliamentary election, hoping that a strong showing by his party would strengthen his credentials as a presidential candidate.
Putin helped steer Medvedev into the presidency in 2008 because the constitution prevented him having a third successive term, but the former KGB spy remains more influential than his protege in a power-sharing arrangement known as the tandem.
He is expected to have the final say on which of them runs and opinion polls suggest either of them would win. They are not expected to run against each other.
Nothing can be taken for granted. Some analysts still say Medvedev could stay on and some say a third candidate could emerge with Putin, who heads United Russia and a loose coalition around it called the People's Front, pulling the strings.
"I think there's still a 30 percent chance there will be third candidate," said Alexei Pushkov, who hosts the weekly analytical programme Post Scriptum. He did not speculate who the surprise candidate might be.
MEDVEDEV URGED TO FIGHT BACK
But with a consensus growing around Putin's candidacy, Medvedev's supporters say now is the time for him to announce a presidential campaign if he wants to stay on.
They say Western investors and politicians would prefer a more liberal leader than Putin and one who is more committed to political and economic reforms.
"The best for him (Putin) is ... to stay on in any title he wants but to let modernisation go on, with Medvedev -- being younger, being a new generation, being better with the West and with the outside world, being better with the intellectuals and intelligentsia -- to carry on as president," said Igor Yurgens, an economic adviser to the Kremlin.
But Medvedev has ignored calls to break out of Putin's shadow, despite warnings of stagnation and crisis if the prime minister returns to the presidency.
He made no mention of his political ambitions in a speech at a forum he hosted in the city of Yaroslavl this month and his performance there compared unfavourably with Putin's at a conference the prime minister hosted a week later.
"From (Medvedev's) statements this summer, it is clear that he stopped fighting for the future presidency sometime in July," analyst Mikhail Delyagin told the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Medvedev sat in the audience listening quietly after his speech in Yaroslavl. Putin remained seated on stage after delivering a speech at his forum in the southern city of Sochi and took part in a long debate on the global economy.
Putin's domination of the economic and political scene was also evident in his lead role in state oil company Rosneft securing a deal with U.S. firm ExxonMobil to extract oil and gas from the Russian Arctic.
A MATTER OF TRUST?
If he runs, Putin risks damaging his reputation as the man who ruled Russia during an economic boom where household incomes improved on the back of a rise in global oil prices. He also helped restore Russia's self confidence on the world stage.
But a senior political source said in July he believed Putin had already decided to run, and was worried by a perception that Medvedev did not have enough support among political and business leaders to ensure stability if he tried to push ahead with political reforms as head of state.
Other political sources have also suggested Putin simply does not trust Medvedev enough to allow him another six years as president -- the term has been extended from four years -- and has been disappointed with his performance.
Kremlin and government spokespeople dismiss such remarks, saying the two men get on well and see eye-to-eye on policy. Political and economic analysts also see more difference in style than policy.
Medvedev's ratings remain high in opinion polls, as do Putin's. But a poll released by the VTsIOM research centre on September 14 showed only eight percent of respondents regard Medvedev as a "true leader capable of rallying others."
Forty-seven percent of respondents found it hard to say whether he had any achievements or failures as president and 23 percent said there had been no achievements at all.
"I don't really care who's president because we have no good politicians," said an unemployed 24-year-old woman who gave her name only as Anna.
Samanta Akhmedova, a 25-year-old beautician, said: "What's the point of voting? It's all pre-arranged anyway."
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this