Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s efforts to avoid a run-off in next month’s presidential election will work against the Russian leader by undermining his legitimacy, his opponents said.
Opposition groups, who staged the biggest ever anti-Putin protests over alleged fraud in December parliamentary elections, warned that a first-round victory in the March 4 vote would trigger a wave of larger rallies. A second round 21 days later may hand him a fair win and deflate the demonstrations, his opponents believe. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, the most popular challenger, trails Putin between 29 and 43 percentage points, polls shows.
“Putin should be interested in a run-off if he wants to remain a legitimate ruler,” Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the pro-democracy Yabloko party, said in a Feb. 10 phone interview. “But he’s afraid of that and it looks like they will force through a first round win. This is a big mistake on his part.”
Tens of thousands of Russians rallied in major cities in December and this month in an unprecedented challenge to Putin, 59, who sparked calls for his ouster after he announced in September his plan to return to the Kremlin after 12 years in power. Putin warned on Feb. 1 that the presidential election going to a second round for the first time 16 years may lead to “a certain destabilization,” while saying he was ready for a run-off.
Markets will count on political risk in Russia “for the foreseeable future” as the presidential election may spark more unrest, Citigroup Inc. said on Feb. 6. The dollar-denominated RTS stock index lost more than 13 percent of its value and the ruble had its longest losing streak since January 2009 in the 10 days after the Dec. 4 vote. The gauge has gained 19 percent this year.
Russia’s only presidential run-off was in 1996, when Boris Yeltsin edged Zyuganov 35 percent to 32 percent in the first round. Yeltsin, who enlisted the support of big business, won the second round with almost 54 percent of the vote to the Communist leader’s 40 percent.
More educated voters in Moscow and other cities who may vote for Zyuganov in the first round are unlikely to support a Communist candidate who has vowed to re-nationalize all natural resources in the run-off, said Gleb Pavlosvsky, a former Kremlin adviser and head of the Moscow-based Effective Policy Foundation.
“In the first round you will see a protest vote,” Pavlosvsky said in an interview yesterday. “In the second, Putin could easily win more than 60 percent of the vote with support from the countryside and small towns, state workers. In this case, Putin can invite thousands of international observers.”
A victory next month would allow the Russian leader to rule for two more six-year terms, which would make him the longest- serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The prime minister “has every chance of winning without a runoff,” Dmitry Peskov, his spokesman, said Jan. 17.
Putin’s support is near the 50 percent-mark he needs to exceed to avoid a run-off, opinion polls show. He’ll win 53 percent of the vote, according to a Feb. 4-5 opinion poll by the state-run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, which interviewed 1,600 Russians and gave a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Another Feb. 4-5 poll of 3,000 people by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation showed Putin’s voter backing at 47 percent, with no margin of error given. Putin’s support is as low as 37 percent, according to a Jan. 20-23 survey by the independent Levada Center, which plans to release its final survey before the election on Feb. 24.
‘Putin is Afraid’
Yabloko’s presidential candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, who was barred from running after officials said they found almost 25 percent invalid signatures supporting his application, said Jan. 23 his exclusion shows how much Putin is concerned about winning in the first round.
“Putin is afraid of two things: observers and elections,” Yavlinsky said, adding that his party had vowed to deploy tens of thousands of observers.
Opposition parties claim that Putin’s ruling United Russia party inflated its share of the vote in the Dec. 4 legislative vote from 30 percent to around 50 percent. The authorities say the election was free and fair.
“I’ve no doubt that in Moscow on March 5, you will see massive protests because for Putin to win, he will need even more violations of the laws of mathematics than they conducted on Dec. 4,” former chess champion Garry Kasparov, a co-founder of Solidarity, the opposition group that is organizing the anti- Putin rallies, said in an interview in December.
Putin, who replaced the ailing Yeltsin on Dec. 31, 1999 as acting president, was elected in March 2000 with 52.9 percent of the vote. Four years later, he won another term with 71.3 percent.
The chances that Putin would beat Zyuganov in the second round are “pretty high,” even with increased voter mobilization by anti-government forces, said Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader.
“If there isn’t fraud and Putin gets his 40 percent on the first round and wins fairly in the run-off, of course it will significantly reduce the chances of mass protests,” Navalny said in a Feb. 6 phone interview. “But weighing up these things, and this may be our good fortune, they are going for a fraudulent victory on the first round rather than risk the uncertainties of a second round.”
--With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov and Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow. Editors: Balazs Penz, Andrew Langley
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