In the run-up to Russia presidential election, two things were clear from the very start: that President Putin would be re-elected, and that his main potential challenger, anti-corruption crusader Alexeï Navalny, would not be allowed to run.
Navalny was barred from the election because of a conviction in a case that he and his supporters say was politically motivated. Nevertheless, he continued to build his impressive campaign, with representation in some 70 cities across Russia, countless volunteers and rallies, and effective crowd-funding. Once the decision to bar him was official, however, he switched his campaign machine to a boycott one, calling for a “voters’ strike”.
While this was essentially a last resort, it seems to still have worried the Kremlin, which threw its whole weight behind a get-out-the-vote campaign, to make sure the president received a broad mandate on election day. In addition to an official campaign with posters and videos urging Russians to vote, there were many reports from across the country of civil servants and students being pressured to vote under threat of negative consequences.
In any case, the official result is clear. While international observers spoke of an election that took place in an “overly controlled” environment and “lacked genuine competition”, Russian independent observers registered more than 3000 violations, and one Russian researcher’s statistical analysis showed there could be as many as 10 million fraudulent votes for Putin, the Kremlin has simply shrugged off the criticism and celebrated the victory.
Responding to a journalist’s question about his plans for another re-election, Putin jokingly said that he couldn’t exactly remain president until he was a hundred years old. However, noone would seriously expect the Russian president to simply relinquish his power one day. This means that he now has six years to devise a plan on how this can be achieved, if he doesn’t have one already. Several possibilities present themselves, of which two are the most likely ones.
He could repeat his 2008 move and switch places with a trustworthy and loyal Prime Minister for four years, before returning to the presidency. However, last time, even such a symbolic switch gave rise to increased opposition activity, resulting in months of protests between December 2011 and May/June 2012, when he returned to the presidency. The protests were eventually defeated by a combination of smart legal manoeuvring with slightly liberalised laws and a tough crackdown on the final major protest in May. But the question is if Putin is willing to deal with that again at age 77 (for a re-election in 2030).
However, it is unlikely that it would really change much: the Kremlin would be prepared, and a significant portion of the population would probably even support the president.
Another possibility has been demonstrated recently in China: just change the constitution to abolish term limits. In a country with a rubber-stamp parliament and a tightly controlled judiciary this does not seem difficult. There could be a reaction from the society, but with many Russians genuinely supporting Putin and not seeing any alternative to his rule – thanks, in large, to a tightly controlled media – it is likely that not that many would even object. The question would be whether the opposition is able to mobilise the part of society that would indeed object, and if so, whether that would prove enough. Judging from the past, it should be possible to mount a series of large-scale protests, especially if the opposition finds a way to cooperate, and charismatic figures, like Navalny, become the face of the protests. However, it is unlikely that it would really change much: the Kremlin would be prepared, and a significant portion of the population would probably even support the president.
Nevertheless, the clock is not only ticking for Putin, it is also ticking for the opposition: they also have six years to prepare. They will be hampered by increasingly restrictive laws and harassment, as well as by the Kremlin-controlled media. At the same time, the consequences of Putin’s actions – corruption, lack of domestic economic development, and Western sanctions – could also provide an opportunity. Whatever happens, 2024 could very well be a tipping point in modern Russian history: does the country definitively turn towards autocratic rule, or is there still enough vigour and mobilising power left in the opposition to force the Kremlin to liberalise? It may not be easy or likely, but the Russians have surprised the world before.
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