Doppelgängers

Whether it be jumping on a bandwagon or seeking to mislead the electorate, Ukraine has taken the lead in doppelgänger candidates causing confusion. But this year’s elections were not the first use of such underhand tactics and India, Russia, the UK and USA have all seen variations of this phenomenon.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

At the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) party of new president Volodymyr Zelensky won an overall majority with 254 out of 424 seats contested. It was the first time in the history of the country since independence that a single party had got a majority in parliament, but this was hardly the most unexpected outcome. Zelensky had won more than 73% of the vote in the second round of the presidential poll four months earlier and, whilst a lot of that vote might have been against his opponent rather than for him, there was no doubt that Zelensky and his party were massively popular. So it came as no surprise when a lot of people sought to jump on the bandwagon to gain an advantage.

Servant of the People was a political party formed by Zelensky and named after his TV show. In that production he plays a history teacher who unwittingly becomes president after a rant about corruption is illicitly videoed by his students and goes viral. The naif as president concept became hugely popular and Zelensky rode it into office with a campaign based on TV and online campaigns. In his inauguration speech he called for early parliamentary elections (as well as fundamental changes to remove immunity for elected politicians and changes to the voting system). Despite a court challenge, these snap elections happened and Servant of the People was in prime position.

Servant of the People was not the only new party. The Voice (Holos) party also appeared on the ballot paper. This was the creation of popular musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. He had talked about standing in the presidential election but chose not to in a move widely seen to be co-ordinated with Zelensky. In the event of a hung parliament it was expected that The Voice Party would be likely to align with Servant of the People. As with Servant of the People, The Voice fielded a slate comprised entirely of political newcomers. No sitting or former MP was running as a candidate for either party.

 

IMG_6292

A polling station in Kherson district set up for the 2019 Parliamentary elections

 

Ukraine has a mixed voting system for Parliamentary polls (although this is the subject of one of the changes proposed by the President). Around half of all MPs are elected from party lists. The remainder are elected from single mandate districts using first past the post. It was in these districts that closer contests and electoral malpractice were expected as they pitched incumbents against representatives of the new parties.

Servant of the People and The Voice were so popular that many people sought to imply their candidacies were part of these movements even when they were not. This was impossible to achieve on the national vote where lists were submitted by registered parties only. However in the single mandate districts OSCE/ODIHR found 79 candidates in 55 districts who used the name Servant of the People to run against the candidate officially nominated by that party. (In addition, other candidates campaigned with colours, logos and slogans similar to Servant of the People.) The way these candidates got the name Servant of the People onto the ballot paper was usually by claiming to be employed by an organisation of that name, of which there are currently 44 according to Ukraine’s registry of legal entities. In addition, the name Holos was used by five independent candidates in single mandate districts and in one case each the names of Opposition Platform for Life, Opposition Bloc and European Solidarity were used.

Servant of the People complained to the Central Electoral Commission who decided that the reference to employment places which coincided with the name of the party would be removed from ballot papers in some cases. However it is not clear how many cases this applied to and whether or not ballot papers were re-printed.

One candidate who was particularly put out by the decision by Servant of the People to run entirely new candidates was a sitting MP from the Bloc Petro Poroshenko (which re-named itself European Solidarity for the elections) faction who, when Volodymyr Zelensky announced his intention to run for President, left his faction and became a cheerleader for the man who would become the new President. But he was declined the opportunity to run as an official Servant of the People candidate. This did not stop him trying to imply he represented the President’s party however. His campaign literature made frequent references to the party and president and even featured (genuine) photographs of him standing alongside Zelensky. Voters, however, were not to be fooled and he lost his seat to the official Servant of the People candidate.

It is impossible to say whether these cases were all bandwagon jumpers seeking to cash in on the popularity of Servant of the People or whether some were in fact attempts at spoiler candidates initiated by electoral opponents. The suspicion is that they were mostly the former, but Ukraine has a history of another form of doppelgänger, the ‘clone candidate’.

Clone Candidates

The most well known of these clone candidates is Yuriy Tymoshenko. Mr Tymoshenko stood in the presidential contest in March as a self-nominated (independent) candidate. He revelled in the attention he received because he happened to share a name with the long-established candidate (and former Prime Minister) Yulia Tymoshenko. The similarity was not confined to their family name and first name. Both of their fathers had the name Volodymyr and so, in the Ukrainian fashion, they had similar patronymics – Volodymyrovitch for Yuriy and Volodymyrivna for Yulia. When asked about this apparent coincidence, Yuriy Tymoshenko claimed that he had announced his candidacy long before his near namesake and claimed to be a serious runner. No one believed this statement and his limited campaign material appeared in the same colours and style as his more popular namesake and used the name Y.V. Tymoshenko (Ю́ В Тимоше́нко in cyrillic script). Yuriy Tymoshenko was a spoiler, or technical, candidate aiming to draw some votes away from Yulia Tymoshenko. This was helped by the ballot papers listing candidates in alphabetical order, something unchanged despite a court challenge from Yulia Tymoshenko. In the event, Yuriy Tymoshenko won some 0.62% of the vote. This was not enough to make a difference to the outcome of the contest – Yulia Tymoshenko came third with 13.4% and was 2.55% behind the second placed candidate – but was almost certainly far more than he would have gained on his own merits. Of the 39 candidates on the ballot paper, 26 who did little or no campaigning (like Yuriy Tymoshenko) won between 0.01% and 0.17% of the vote.

 

IMG_5690 2

Ballot paper for the 2019 Ukraine Presidential election showing both Yuriy Tymoshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko

 

It is impossible to be certain whether Yuriy Tymoshenko’s candidacy was his own idea or whether he was inspired or funded by other electoral opponents of Yulia Tymoshenko. In limited interviews he claimed to be standing entirely on his own initiative. However in the paperwork required for candidacy he declared an annual income of the equivalent of $10,000 against a deposit required for candidacy of $92,000.

Clone candidates existed in Ukraine before Yuriy Tymoshenko. In 2016 UKROP candidate Oksana Valentynivna Tomchuk was opposed in the 27th constituency in the city of Dnipro by near namesakes Oksana Ivanivna Tomchuk (who also claimed to be a member of UKROP in her biography), Oksana Valeriivna Tomchuk and Oksana Hrygorivn Tomchuk.

The concept continued into the parliamentary elections. OSCE/ODIHR found 152 candidates with 69 similar or identical names standing in 42 single mandate districts. Police opened 46 investigations and the observation mission estimated that nine of the contests could have been affected by the phenomenon in that a clone candidate gained more votes than a similarly named candidate lost by.

In constituency number 25 Andriy Valeriyovych Bohdan was standing and his biography mentioned a connection to Servant of the People. Coincidentally, President Zelensky’s chief of staff is called Andriy Bohdan. Except he wasn’t running for Parliament anywhere and his patronymic is Yosypovych, not Valeriyovych. The official Servant of the People candidate, Maksym Buzhansky won the seat.

In constituency 92 in Uzhyn there were four candidates called Guzdenko with the first name of either Viktor or Vitaliy. Two had the same patronymic of Ivanovych. There are also three Oleksandr Ferenets.

In constituency 33 in Kryviy Rih, there were two Olha Volodymyrivna Babenkos. One was standing on behalf of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party and the other was self-nominated. In the same constituency there was also a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnik and a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnyk.

In constituency 38 in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk region, there was Vladislav Borodin from Servant of the People and Volodymyr Borodin, a self-nominated candidate, as well as two Vadym Nesterenkos.

Finally, in constituency 133 in Odesa, there were four people named Baranskiy — Viktor, Vitaliy, Vitaliy, and Ihor. The first two were candidates from the ideologically similar but politically separate Opposition Platform and Opposition Bloc, respectively. There were also Gontaruk and Goncharuk (both self-nominated), and two Artem Dmytruks, including one representing the Servant of the People party.

 

IMG_6286

Voter information posters on display at a polling station in Kherson district during the 2019 Ukraine parliamentary elections

 

Doppelgängers are not limited to Ukraine. In the UK there was a problem with candidates standing with party names designed to mimic other parties. One persistent candidate was Richard Huggett who stood in the 1994 European Parliamentary elections in the Devon and East Plymouth single member seat under the label of ‘Literal Democrat’. Mr Huggett eventually polled 10,203 votes, far more than the 700 vote majority of the Conservative candidate over the genuine Liberal Democrat. In the 1997 general election, Mr Huggett sought to stand under the name ‘Gerald Maclone’ in the Winchester constituency against sitting MP Gerald Malone. He was prevented from doing so but then stood with the label ‘Liberal Democrat – Top Choice for Parliament’. In an ensuing by-election in the seat he stood again under the ‘Literal Democrat’ label. Throughout, Huggett claimed that he was not acting on behalf of anyone other than himself and his antics, and similar undertaken by others, were only prevented by the 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act which stops candidates standing under labels which may confuse voters.

 

The Indian elections of 2014 present probably the largest single gathering of clone candidates. In one seat in Bilaspur district in the central state of Chhattisgarh no fewer than five of the 35 candidates were named Lakhan Sahu. In another, ten candidates shared the same name. The use of clone candidates might have less of an impact in a country where there are low levels of literacy and where many voters rely on party symbols to locate their chosen candidate. However there can even be similarity between symbols of candidates with the same name. In the seat of Maval in Maharashtra there were two candidates called Shrirang Barne and three named Laxman Jagtap with suspicions that each ‘real’ candidate had recruited at least one clone of their main opponent to confuse matters. The genuine Barne had the electoral symbol of a bow and arrow whilst his namesake was represented by an arrow only. The three Jagtaps were represented by a teacup, a cap and a helmet.

 

Shadow Parties

In Russia the concept of ‘shadow parties’ developed in 2003 and have been in existence ever since. The State Duma (Parliamentary) elections of that year were held at a time when Vladimir Putin was in his first term and the parliamentary elections were the first big test of his leadership. He was the head of the United Russia party but he faced genuine callanges from both the right and left, from the Communist Party and from the Liberal Democrats (now re-branded as LDPR but still led by firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky). And so Rodina was created, allegedly at the instigation of the Kremlin, to leach votes away from these two threats. They used the same symbolism and imagery as the Communists and many of the nationalist policies of the Liberal Democrats, and eventually gained 37 seats in the legislature.

It is worth repeating how shaky Putin’s grasp on power could have been in those days if he had not overseen the triumphant return of an overwhelming United Russia bloc. Russia demands a strong leader and strong leaders control parliament. In the event, United Russia won 37.6% of the votes in the national list element of the elections and just 24% in the cosntituencies, but this was enough for 223 seats overall due to the splitting of the vote. The Communists won 52 seats and the Liberal Democrats 36 seats. Had Rodina not stood, it is highly likely that the Duma result would have been far more balanced and United Russia may not have held an overal majority.

That was more than 15 years ago. But the practice of shadow parties continues. Even in the 2018 presidential election – one which Putin was certain from the outset to win and where turnout was seen as the big concern – there was a field of eight allowed. As well as the real Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Communists of Russia (KR) were on the ballot – a party with much of the same imagery, the same idolatry of historic figures (maybe a little more Stalin than Lenin) and the same policy proposals. Every vote for KR was a vote that might otherwise go to KPRF. And this time Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR had to contend with Sergey Baburin, an eccentrically coiffured former MP with the wonderful ability to conjure nomination signatures from every district and region despite never actually having any activists in place to gather them.

At the same time, Putin’s campaign material looked strikingly similar to a lot of other posters on display on billboards around the country. But far from being mirrored by another candidate or party, the incumbent president had the same colour scheme and design as the official central election commission and so every one of their millions of posters could be taken at first glance to be one for the sitting president.

 

Spoiler candidates

In the USA it might not have been shadow parties that were used, but many elections have been swung by the existence of third party candidates with similar policies to one of the main players who have been given a mysterious boost by supporters of the other.

In ‘Gaming the Vote’, William Poundstone relates the story that John Dendahl, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, quietly offered “more than $100,000” to the Green Party if they would run candidates in NM’s first and second Congressional Districts. The Greens were relatively strong in New Mexico and had already been spoilers in local races. The difference was that the Republicans were now willing to pay cash for services that had previously been free.

Poundstone also cites the June 2006 special election for the Congressman from California’s 15th district, where Republican Brian Bilbray was a ‘foaming-at-the-mouth anti-immigration hawk who supported building a fence clear from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico’. William Griffith, a running as an independent using $2000 of his own money, claimed to be even more anti-immigrant than Bilbray. Then something odd happened. Phone calls started urging voters to vote for Griffith. Radio ads too. Griffith didn’t know who was behind them. Both later turned out to have been funded by Democratic candidate Francine Busby.

 

Legal changes in the UK have shown that it is legislatively possible to prevent parties with similar names or candidates standing under labels designed to confuse. However courts and electoral commissions across the world have proved reluctant to interfere in cases where candidates with similar names choose to stand against each other, regardless of their motivation or provenance. Party names and symbols can help to lessen the confusion, as can active campaigning by the ‘real’ candidate. But even in obvious cases, it is still possible for enough voters to be confused that they cast their vote for the spoof candidate and, in tight contests, this can be enough to make the difference.

United Russia makes way for independents in a bid to retain loyalist dominance in Russian regional elections

Russia’s regional and local elections in September will be a major test for the Putin regime, and it appears that his United Russia party is being abandoned in many regions as more loyalists run as independents. Reports also highlight activities designed to try to keep genuine competitors off the ballot.

The elections on September 8th will see 16 governors elected – many of whom have been appointed by Putin mid-term. In addition, 14 regions and the City of Moscow will select legislative assemblies and 21 other cities will choose municipal councils.

The gloss has come off United Russia after President Putin’s public opinion highpoint of 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. Pension reforms, corruption and even the expansion of rubbish dumps have all proved massively unpopular and the party is currently polling at around 35% nationwide – far below the 50% or more they secured in Duma (Parliament) elections three years ago. In key cities support might be as low as one in four voters.

Putin himself ran as an independent in the Presidential election last year and the vast majority of regional governors will be doing the same in order to keep the United Russia brand off the ballot. How much this will fool voters is open to debate.

There is also a switch to boost the proportion of single mandate constituencies in many council areas and a lessening of the number of party list seats. This too will allow loyalists to be elected as independents rather than relying on the United Russia label. This move has been unpopular with party apparatchiks however, as they have seen their chances of advancement fall dramatically.

But it might only be a short-term fix for the Kremlin. The next Duma elections are due in 2021 and by then President Putin will need to have a plan for securing a loyalist majority.

Putin’s strategy for regional governors has changed over the past cycle. More and more are being appointed from areas far from the region they will be administering. Perhaps this is a way of preventing the establishment of local power-bases or of testing people out for more senior ministerial appointments in the future. But it means that appointees have little in the way of local support when they have to face the voters.

Various tactics appear to be in use to ensure that governors and others face little real challenge in September. According to RFE/RL, opposition parties such as the Communists, LDPR and A Just Russia are declining to nominate candidates even in areas of strength, thus giving the Putin supported candidate a free run. Any other name on the ballot paper will be a token opponent to give a fig leaf of credibility to the contest.

In other areas there are claims that loyalist candidates are being put on the ballot paper thanks to false signatures and opposition candidates are finding it tough to gather their own signatures due to violence and intimidation.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has released a video purporting to show such a ‘signature factory’ in a local administration building.

Opposition candidates are also said to be finding their path to registration quite literally blocked as fake candidates are summoned to stand in front of them in queues to register and ‘terrorist threats’ are declared to prevent candidates having access to local administration buildings.

What will happen during the campaign period and on election day will largely not be visible. As is common with sub-national elections in most countries, international election observers have not been invited to view these contests. In addition, Russia has adopted a new law on domestic election observation which largely denies established and independent groups the ability to participate. Instead, a single ‘citizens chamber’ has been created in each area, made up of all NGOs and civic society organisations in the region. In reality, this means that the chamber is dominated by state employees and is not at all independent. OSCE observation of these chambers in the 2018 Presidential election (a mission of which I was a part) found that its members were not interested in proper observation and they were simply there to prevent genuine groups having access to polling stations. 

Theresa May’s meeting with Putin and the idea of a new normal (UPDATED following the meeting)

UPDATE 28/6/19 The meeting happened and here is the read out from the Prime Minister’s spokesperson.

Confirmation that a UK-Russia meeting will be held on the margins of the G20 in Japan this weekend in a bid to re-set the fractured relationship between the UK and Russia is encouraging and will be welcomed by many, but there are a lot of issues to get past if any sort of regular relationship is to be re-established. If temperatures do thaw then it will be time to get used the idea of ‘a new normal’.

At the top of the agenda, there needs to be some resolution to the issue of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. Talks must begin there in order to satisfy not just the UK, but Russia too, Russia has been impacted by the sanctions that were imposed by a wide range of Western countries after the poisoning, perhaps the most tangible achievement of the entire Theresa May premiership. As time passes these sanctions will start to pale as Russia finds a way around them and targeted individuals are replaced. The decision this week by the Council of Europe to readmit Russia will be seen as the first major crack in the dam. But for the moment they are still having an impact and Russia wants them gone.

Talks on Salisbury won’t necessarily produce the outcome that May wants. Against all the evidence, Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the poisoning and won’t change their tune now. But there may be a chance to reach a form of words that moves things forward. A pledge by Russia to take action to prevent any such attacks happening in the future, perhaps.

But the strains in the relationship are not just about Salisbury. Russian cyber attacks on elections and other state institutions are a concern, as is aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The cyber attacks issue may reach the same conclusion as Salisbury. Russia will continue to deny involvement in the face of evidence to the contrary. But whilst it is pretty clear that Russia has developed the capability to use cyber as a weapon at many levels, it has used a range of arms-length companies to do much of this work and no longer totally controls what is happening in the field. The Russian Federation has long been gripped by a power vertical, a top down control of everything that happens, but that control has shattered in a few key areas. Introducing deniability in special operations is one such, as former state officers are setting themselves up to conduct clandestine projects at the request of the Kremlin. And Russia is not the only country where extensive cyber capabilities have been developed. Although Chinese targets tend to be of a different nature, it is clear that they too have the ability to use cyber as an offensive tool. There are other countries and private concerns that are working in the field too, including the UK which is said to be ahead of most countries.

So Putin may feel that he can continue deny responsibility for attacks on the US elections, Brexit referendum and so on. And it is clear that Russia does not believe it needs to play by the rules on free and fair internal elections, despite the international commitments it has made. What May and others will want to see, however, is some sort of agreement that elections in the West are off-limits.

This, however, creates a significant problem for Theresa May as she and the west have been loathe to accept Russian suggestions that there be defined spheres of influence. In particular, Russia sees Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus and central Asian republics as ‘their’ territory. Although NATO expansion into these areas might not be immediately on the cards, it is clear that blocking a return of a Russian-led union is a key goal, alongside a move to western style democracy for those that want it. Ukraine very clearly wants to move in this direction and Russia is determined to stop it. A deal which alludes to spheres of influence, even if it gives some peace to the West, cannot be acceptable to relatively new found allies in the East.

If some sort of rapprochement is achieved then it will not be a return to ‘business as usual’. Particularly as this means different things to each side. Relations between Russia and the West have been in a continued state of flux since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last time there was real certainty was during the Brezhnev era. For most in the West, they probably mean the mid-nineties when Russia appeared to be in a state of liberal capitalism and business could be done. But Russians often look back to that time with far less than fond memories as ordinary citizens were struggling to get by whilst the oligarchs built their empires.

Instead we are likely to see a new normal as the relationship re-sets itself according to new rules and accepted mores. These rules will take some time to bed in and will be continue to be defined by the actions of nation states. But a willingness by May and Putin to start the ball rolling with a formal meeting is the only way that a period of some stability will be possible.

Russian readmission to Council of Europe could have an impact on Ukraine’s Parliamentary election

UPDATE 28/6/19: Six more PACE delegations have walked out of the General Assembly in solidarity with Ukraine.

A row over the readmission of Russia to the Council of Europe could have repurcussions for the up-coming Parliamentary elections in Ukraine as the country’s foreign minister has suggested that an invitation to Council of Europe observers could be withdrawn.

The Council of Europe is a body created to promote democracy and human rights and with 47 members from across the continent. Russia withdrew three years ago following condemnation of the annexation of Crimea and Russian support for the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Its membership was subsequently suspended. At its summer meeting this week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (known as PACE) voted on a proposal which would see Russia readmitted. That vote was passed despite strong opposition from Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia and the UK delegations.

Proponents of readmission argue that the Council of Europe oversees the work of the European Court of Human Rights and that continued exclusion of Russia would threaten the rights of Russian citizens who regularly win judgements in that court. Those opposed to the measure say it will be seen as a relaxation of sanctions against Russia and a loss of determination over Russian actions against Ukraine and incidents such as the Salisbury poisoning.

New Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has condemned the vote and suggested that many countries’ words of support have not been matched by their actions. Ukraine’s delegation to PACE has temporarily withdrawn in protest and it’s ambassador recalled. 

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House told TRT World:

“The Council of Europe has had a long and dishonourable record of conceding to Russian diplomacy, through a mixture of corruption, coercion and bribery. Even without these methods, there is also an innate desire in the PACE structures and many of its member states to allow Russia in.”

In a move that will surprise no one, Russia has proposed four people on the international sanctions list as members of their new PACE delegation and have even suggested that they will nominate someone from Crimea.

Now the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin, has suggested that the invitation issued to PACE to observe the Parliamentary elections on July 21st may be withdrawn. PACE delegations traditionally work alongside the OSCE/ODIHR mission which is the largest and most respected* of the international election observation missions in Ukraine.

There is no question that Ukraine is genuinely angry about the PACE decision. Although not a foreign policy-oriented President, Zelensky had made significant efforts in his relations with France and Germany and the wider EU with his first foreign visits being made to Brussels and then Berlin and Paris. He will feel that his efforts have not been rewarded as German and French delegates were at the forefront of the Council of Europe’s Russia decision. Zelensky’s next foreign trip is to Canada where more than a million citizens describe themselves as ‘Ukrainian-Canadian’. The diaspora there have traditionally been very nationalist and anti-Russian in their outlook.

A recent Chatham House paper argues that:

“Kyiv may find that unconditional European support for Ukraine can no longer be taken for granted, it will have to be won.”

The certainly seems to be the case at the moment. The question will be whether the new President and Parliament are prepared to carry on trying to woo Europe or whether they will revert to more traditional supporters.

 

*Declaration of interest – I work frequently for OSCE/ODIHR and was a long term observer for the mission to observe the Presidential elections in the Spring.

Russia’s next President? What happens in 2024 (UPDATED 24/6/19)

UPDATE: Chatham House held a round table today (24/6/19) with Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, who discussed these precise scenarios. The suggestions and conclusions below remain my own, but I have updated them to take account of some of the things that Kirill said.

 

Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President of the Russian Federation last year by a healthy margin. Not quite the 70/70 margin that he was aiming for, but a significant first round majority in an election characterised by a lack of competition. But that was, at least officially, his last election. In 2024 his second term will expire. Russia, and the wider world, wants to know what will come next.

In essence, there are five options for Putin to consider and very few Russia watchers are brave enough to put much money on any particular one. The signs that he is going down a particular path might be well hidden, but they are nonetheless there. The trouble is that the same sign might lead to more than one outcome. Therefore, in no particular order:


  1. A second ‘Dos-si-Dos’ with Medvedev

It worked once, so why not again? Taking a term off from the role of President to be Prime Minister is hardly a real change as no one would be under illusions about who is the real boss. Medvedev would undertake a bit more ceremonial stuff, but Putin would still pull the strings.

Except – Medvedev is not nearly as credible as he once was. In fact he is seen as a Dan Quayle-type by some in Russia, and there is currently no one else with sufficient profile to be slotted in as a reliable figurehead. What happens if the voters of Russia choose not to endorse Medvedev (or another nominee) in an election? And will Putin be seen as being too old to return. After all, the presidential term has been lengthened from four to six years and he will be 78 before he is allowed to resume the top job. UPDATE: Kirill Rogov pointed out that even ‘facade’ Presidents such as Medvedev can build up a coterie of followers who have either been excluded by the main regime or who see this as a means of advancement. This can be a problem for the main player when they return to the top job.

How we might see this coming – If Putin starts to emphasise the inviolability of the constitution; If Medvedev is replaced as Prime Minister or a credible, but not threatening, successor is groomed.

 


  1. Stepping Away from it all

If the constitution says that Putin cannot stand again as President, then he could simply follow the constitution. It is the simplest and most elegant option and would bring praise from former opponents and enemies around the world. He could step back and enioy his retirement years in fitting luxury.

Except – Everyone knows that this is not how this story plays out. Russia as a top down autocracy might have lost some of its direction in recent decades, but even if every directive is no longer controlled by the party or the president, a lot of what happens is done because officials believe that this is what the boss would want to happen. Stepping away from such power and control is highly unlikely. Putin has undoubtedly amassed great private wealth but gives no sign of wanting to retire to enjoy it. And, once he is no longer in charge, he cannot protect himself, his friends or his family as he can now. Retribution is not going to come straight away, but in a decade or so life could get pretty tough for an ex-authoritarian.

How we might see this coming – More emphasis on the constitution and its importance; Strengthening ties with a friendly country where Putin might acquire a ‘holiday home’; Promotion of a successor who is stronger than Medvedev but nonetheless completely unthreatening to Putin; Interest in taking on an international role (ideally one that comes with some form of immunity).

 


  1. The Nazarbayev

A number of long standing leaders of former Soviet states are deciding that the time is right to step aside. Their concern, as Putin’s, is to safeguard their legacy. Or, more accurately, to ensure they aren’t likely to face the inside of a courtroom or the loss of all their pilfered gains.

So Putin might look to the example set by Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. Nazabayev stepped aside earlier this year in favour of his longstanding (and largely anonymous) sidekick Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But Nazarbayev didn’t quit politics completely. He retained the position of head of the Nur Otan Party (Kazakhstan is effectively a one party state) as well as President of the Security Council. In addition, every second thing in Kazakhstan is named after Nazarbayev – who is referred to as ‘First President and Leader of the Nation’. From airports to universities to the capital city itself, it is difficult to imagine him being denounced, let alone put under any real hardship.

Except – For all the deficiencies of the Russian Federation, it is a more open and pluralist state than Kazakhstan. Putin might well get a defence college named after him, but I suspect Moscow and St Petersburg will be inked into atlases for a few years yet to come. The United Russia Party was created to do Putin’s will but it has also been the shock absorber for discontent within the country and looks set to be abandoned in favour of a new grouping if needed. Putin could well keep hold of the country’s security aparatus and that could protect him for a few years, but it is not the long term solution that he might wish.

How we might see this coming – Almost certainly, we won’t. The secret to making this option a success is that it must come by surprise. Perhaps the absence of other options will be the clue. But if it is to happen then it is unlikely to be at the last minute.

 


  1. A new union

The constitution forbids a third consecutive term as President of the Russian Federation. But what if there were another top job created? What if another, currently independent, state decided to throw in its lot with Russia to create a new Union. Well if that were to happen then that union would need to have a supreme leader, wouldn’t it? An elected President. And who better to guide this new creation than Putin? This option actually feeds into Russia’s adoption of the Brezhnev Doctrine and spheres of influence, especially if some countries cannot be trusted to be loyal of their own volition.

Except – The downside here, of course, is what state is going to give up its sovereignty to become a vassal of Russia? Belarus is the obvious choice, as many in Russia regard it as the only true ally but it seems unlikely. Kazakhstan is another option, but that ship might well have sailed with the accession of Tokayev to the seat of power in Nur-Sultan.

The other concern would be the consternation sparked in the remaining former Soviet states. Who would believe that Putin’s ambitions are limited to a union of two or three? 

How we might see this coming – If it looks like Belarus is wobbling away from adherence to Russia or if any of the central asian states start to become too close to China.

 


  1. A new constitution

That this is Putin’s final term is due to the limits imposed by the constitution. If such a document imposes limits that you don’t like then you can simply amend it, right? 

Except – A new constitution would require a public vote and, whilst these have been easy enough to win in the past, the same might not be the case in the future. Putin is less popular than he was before and the crest that he rode after annexing Crimea has definitely fallen away. Presidential elections are easier to manipulate because a vote against Putin required ballots to be cast in favour of one of a range of pretty unappealling alternatives. Voting against a constitutional amendment is much easier to do as it means simply rejecting Putin’s power grab. UPDATE: Kirill Rogov points out that abolishing term limits might not require a referendum and could be undertaken by a simple Parliamentary Bill. He suggests that a move like this can either be undertaken on the back of a wave of popularity or in response to a national crisis. And whilst Putin has successfully ridden foreign policy interventions before, these are having less effect. He might need to ensure there is a crisis in which the Russian population perceives Russia to be the victim.

And whilst it is easy enough to rig an election – and he has had lots of practice – massaging a constitutional poll would be more blatant than anything Putin has yet managed. Expect mass footage of ballot box stuffing and rejection of the results by honest international observer groups.

How we might see this coming – If there is talk about the need for a new or updated constitution. Putin was very good at boosting turnout in the last presidential election by running ‘neighbourhood improvement ballots’ alongside. Give the public something they really care about to vote for and you can get away with slipping in a less popular change at the same time.

Thai election candidates seek attention with name changes

The Guardian reports the news that 15 candidates in Thailand’s general election have changed their names to either Thaksin or Yingluck – the names of previous Prime Ministers. According to the paper, the tactic is to make candidates memorable to voters in a country where campaign laws are pretty restrictive.

theresa-may-lord-buckethead-united-kingdom-electionIn the UK we have some history of candidates changing their names, although few have tried this particular tactic. Lord Buckethead is one name that appeared on a ballot paper but probably wasn’t on the candidate’s birth certificate.

More controversial was the practice of spoof party names which closely mirrored those of real parties. In the 1994 European Elections, Richard Huggett stood as a Literal Democrat candidate for the Devon and East Plymouth seat, taking more votes than the Conservative Party margin over the Liberal Democrats, leading to a legal challenge by the Liberal Democrat candidate. The subsequent 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act ensured that this sort of thing couldn’t happen again in the future.

In other countries, similar tactics were also used. In the Russian Duma elections of 2003, newly elected President Vladimir Putin faced real challenges to his authority. His United Russia Party needed to win or he ran the risk of being a one term president. The main challengers were the Liberal Democrat Party of Russia (a fiercely nationalist party which, now known simply as LDPR, continues to contest elections under its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and the Communist Party. New parties – Rodina and The Party of Russia’s Rebirth – were created, allegedly aiming to draw votes from both the Liberal Democrats and Communists.

Contours of Conflict and Prognosis in the Eastern Neighbourhood by James Nixey, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, has written a paper on the so-called frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe – Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria, Georgia and Ukraine – and what the west might do to edge towards resolutions.

His central tenet is that Russia bears a large responsibility for the conflicts and, together with the actors themselves, must take the lead in resolutions. But, he argues, the west should be taking actions including expelling recalcitrant states from membership of various bodies as well as seeking to inspire solutions. He concludes:

The best the West can do in the meantime is to stop over promising and under-delivering (and ideally do the reverse)

I’m not sure I agree completely with James’ suggestions. For instance I think expelling countries from organisations might be to final a move. But it is worthy of a read for anyone interested in the on-going conflicts.