Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
As widely expected, Vladimir Putin secured a majority (63.7%) on preliminary results from yesterday’s presidential election. A first round win will provide a mandate to govern - but it has come at some cost to Putin’s standing and image. Putin may be able to ride out the large demonstrations expected this evening in Moscow, but will have a much harder time avoiding stagnation of his own power and authority.
The main question of contemporary Russian politics is whether Putin has the will and capacity to rebuild the so-called 'power vertical' that he established during his first two terms as president. The large network of cadres and officials who run this unique system of power are committed to it, but it becomes more difficult to manage without the momentum of a popular authoritarianism that previously marked it.
Putin received a lower vote than his last presidential victory (2004). Still, yesterday’s vote concluded a relatively successful campaign for Putin: his position had seemed far less secure in December, when a leading state polling agency estimated his support at just 42%. Moreover, failure by his United Russia party to secure more than 50% in the December parliamentary elections and the mass demonstrations since then had fuelled expectations that he would experience a deeply uncomfortable presidential campaign.
The turn-around in Putin’s campaign during February was partly aided by the Justice Ministry's refusal to allow some opposition candidates to stand. But it was mainly the result of an effective campaign strategy to mobilize Putin's core electorate in rural areas and provincial towns against the growing opposition from the metropolitan centers. Putin also faced little serious opposition from his 'rivals' for the presidency.
Despite this partial revival, Putin's political power base has been undermined in a number of crucial respects. He now faces some significant challenges in rebuilding key structures of his authority.
The electoral cycle exposed the weaknesses of Russia's dominant party system. United Russia played a marginal role in yesterday’s victory, and is in crisis. Its usefulness in mobilizing popular support for the Kremlin is now in question, even if it remains a useful mechanism for resolving elite conflicts in parliament and regionally. Yet for Putin to attempt to replace the party with a new organization such as the All-Russian Popular Front would put at risk the mechanisms that United Russia has refined in the last decade to generate resources and power at different levels of society.
Meanwhile, the growing confidence of Putin opponents after the December elections forced the Kremlin to concede political reforms which threaten to undermine two key components of Putin's power vertical: the centralized appointment of regional governors, and rules on the registration of political parties. The Kremlin will seek to modify the impact of these reforms but they still have the potential to introduce unpredictability into Russian politics.
Both the parliamentary and presidential elections have exposed large cracks and polarization in the huge, cross-class social coalition that kept Putin in power during the first decade of the 2000s. This represents Putin's greatest problem: his electoral support-base is neither broad enough nor durable enough to provide the support he needs to carry out increasingly urgent social reforms. Indeed, the natural supporters of these reforms are now abandoning him, and he is left to draw on the very social groups that are least likely to favor his modernization proposals.
Putin is likely to find his freedom of political action constrained in ways that were unimaginable during his last presidency. He may yet find some way to escape stagnation during this term, failing which one can expect a degree of institutional anarchy, deeper criminalization of the state and regional fragmentation.
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