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Russian Hopefuls' Quixotic Quest Plants Seeds for 2008

Putin's rivals, polling in single digits, may really be sparring for position in the next election.

March 14, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The presidential candidate wore her weariness like a badge of honor, from her drawn face to her body language, as she walked onstage to address activists demanding fair elections.

Running as the standard-bearer for the most fervent pro-democracy voters in Russia, Irina Khakamada was fighting a two-pronged battle in a campaign that concludes with balloting today.

First, she was waging a hopeless challenge to the enormously popular incumbent, President Vladimir V. Putin. And second, she was defending her candidacy against liberal colleagues and potential supporters who favored sitting out the election.

"If we don't do anything today, if we hide behind the progressive slogan of boycotting the elections, this means that we will no longer see any elections in the future," she declared. Her plan, she said, was to organize a party called Free Russia to fight for democracy in the face of pressures building against it.

The outcome of the vote, as Khakamada fully understands, has been clear beyond all but the slimmest shadow of doubt for months: Putin will win. Polls have shown the president with 70% to 80% support. A recent survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, a respected Moscow polling agency, showed a bit of a last-minute drop in its measurement of backing for Putin, which fell to 63% early this month from 70% in mid-February.

But barring a turnout of less than 50% -- which would invalidate the vote -- the president is positioned for a landslide victory against five rivals. So what's really at stake in this unbalanced contest is what each candidate, and the forces he or she represents, will gain or lose politically.

A second-place finish could position Sergei Glazyev, a leftist economist and member of the lower house of parliament, as a major contender for the presidency in 2008, when Putin will be required to step down unless the constitution is changed.

Glazyev helped lead the Homeland bloc to an unexpectedly strong showing in December's parliamentary elections. Many analysts say that the Kremlin instigated the bloc's formation to drain votes from the Communists but that, when Glazyev insisted on running for president as an independent, Putin's political team turned against him.

At a news conference Wednesday, Glazyev complained bitterly that he had been victimized by "a dirty campaign of slander and character assassination" and that authorities had been openly preparing to rig the balloting.

"The governors themselves or their first deputies call in the heads of election commissions for briefings and tell them that more than 70% of the votes should be cast for Putin, and that the turnout should be no less than 70%," Glazyev alleged.

If Khakamada could pull off a second-place finish, it would breathe new life into the forces that look to the United States and Western Europe for political and economic models.

It's more likely, however, that the Communist Party candidate, Nikolai Kharitonov, will place second. A Soviet-era collective farm director, he was chosen as the party's candidate when its leader, Gennady A. Zyuganov, decided to forgo a third run for the presidency after losing in 1996 and 2000. Should Kharitonov become the runner-up, it might slow the Communists' slide toward oblivion, but no one thinks he or his party is Russia's wave of the future.

The Public Opinion Foundation poll gave Kharitonov 6.8%, Glazyev 2.9% and Khakamada 2.9%. Rounding out the field, Oleg Malyshkin, the nominee of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, drew 1.9%, while Sergei Mironov, chairman of the upper house of parliament, came in under 1%.

Malyshkin, a former boxer, is seen as a stand-in for his party's leader, the flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, who is viewed by his critics as a buffoon and his supporters as a true man of the people. Zhirinovsky, who chose to sit out this election, has declared that he still intends to be a political force in Russia's future.

Mironov said at the beginning of his campaign that he was running to support Putin. Because at least two candidates are required for the election to be valid, his presence has been seen as the Kremlin's insurance against all other contenders dropping out.

Putin has waged his campaign simply by being presidential, with state-run television giving heavy, positive coverage to his activities while largely ignoring other candidates. He also generated preelection excitement by naming a new prime minister and reshuffling the Cabinet, giving it an even stronger reformist bent in economic terms while maintaining the influence of officials with security backgrounds.

Many observers see Putin's team as split between market-oriented reformers and those who emphasize security and strong central authority. Some believe that the economic reformers favor greater democracy in the political sphere, while the former KGB officials favor greater state control of the economy.

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