Vladimir Putin has promised to quit as the leader of the United Russia party after his presidential inauguration on May 7 and suggested Dmitry Medvedev as his replacement.
The chairman of United Russia’s Supreme Council, Boris Gryzlov told Putin that he was sure that the party congress would support Medvedev’s candidacy for the leader’s post.
United Russia introduced the post of party leader in 2008. Vladimir Putin was the first and so far, the only person to hold this position. Previously the top post in the party was the Chairman of the Supreme Council, occupied by Boris Gryzlov and after 2008, Gryzlov remained the head of United Russia’s parliamentary faction and speaker of the Lower House.
The party had informally announced Putin as its leader even earlier – when they used Putin’s image and a program called Putin’s Plan during the parliamentary elections in 2007. Putin’s popularity and support allowed United Russia to get over 64 percent of votes at these elections.
The 2011 parliamentary poll showed a radical decline in the party’s popularity. It received slightly over 49 percent of votes, still getting the majority of seats, but losing the ability to make changes to the constitution without other factions’ support. According to Russian law, changes to the constitution can be made only with the support of two thirds of the Lower House. After the poll, the head of the party’s faction, Boris Gryzlov gave up his MP’s mandate, saying it “was not right” for him to remain in the speaker’s post for the third time in a row.
Last year’s elections were marred by mass protests against alleged violations and so-called extensive use of administrative resource – pressure from state officials of high and low rank to vote for United Russia. Elections officials acknowledged some of the violations, but said they did not affect the final results and there was no need for a re-run.
Voters became increasingly disenchanted with a force that many believe is made up mostly of unelected bureaucrats, constantly seen enjoying lavish lifestyles. United Russia became known as "the party of crooks and thieves" among protesters, and once even held a formal meeting aimed at deflecting such claims.
Tens of thousands of people in Moscow and St. Petersburg took to the streets, protesting against the party – and the movement also moved to the Web, with dozens of online parodies of MP interviews, sketches and short films posted on the subject. Many of the country’s media personalities also contributed, writing songs and poems, collecting money for organizing the protests and so on.
Punchy, acerbic virtual political campaigns were a huge part of this year’s political events, with every side trying to be as creative as possible in sinking opponents and making their candidate shine.
Before the parliamentary elections, Vladimir Putin announced the foundation of the Popular Front – a movement for people supporting United Russia’s course, but choosing not to enter the party ranks. United Russia said it would give up a quarter of its parliamentary seats to Popular Front members in exchange for support in the election. The movement has not yet been officially registered, and its program documents are still in development.
Putin has never been a member of United Russia – the party says this is right in order for it to have full dialogue with other parties and political forces.
Experts have explained the fall of United Russia’s popularity, saying that voters want more precise programs from political parties, not vague concepts like Putin’s Plan. The head of the Institute of Modern Development, Igor Yurgens said that United Russia is currently an assembly of people with completely different political beliefs, united only by their loyalty to Putin as future president. The expert said that the current political process requires a split between leftist and rightist members within the party. “The simultaneous presence of socialists, social democrats and billionaires from the Forbes list who skillfully defend big business and who are in essence rightist politicians is impossible for a ruling party with its need to develop and hold a single political course,” Yurgens was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. He also added that United Russia’s results in the latest poll “were not especially good” and the party understands that it must make changes.
Vedomosti daily has suggested that putting Medvedev in Putin’s place as United Russia leader would allow both politicians to retain networks of reception offices throughout the country – Medvedev would get Putin’s current network, and Putin will inherit Medvedev’s network when he is sworn in as President. Besides, the article suggested that Putin would retain control over United Russia through his presidential administration even after leaving the post of official party leader.
Opposition MPs said that the changes in United Russia’s leadership are not likely to change the party’s course or politics. Communist Sergey Obukhov said it does not matter for his party who is the official leader of the parliamentary majority. The politician said members expect all decisions to be taken in the presidential administration, with Putin and Medvedev simply “demonstrating a game of politics and democracy”.
Maksim Rokhmistrov of the Liberal Democratic Party faction said that Medvedev taking the post of United Russia leader will not change anything in the country. United Russia is de-facto run by Putin and Medvedev together anyway, he said. However, Rokhmistrov added that it was unlikely that Medvedev will form a truly new government if he takes the post. The politician said that if Medvedev really wants changes, he should turn down the proposal.