Opponents of the Kremlin are “jackals” and lackeys of the West, while Russia’s still-powerful business oligarchs are hoping the country will grow “weak and ill” so they can seize power, President Vladimir Putin told a cheering, foot-stamping crowd in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium Wednesday night.
“Our opponents all want to see us disunited,” Putin said. “Some want to take away and divide everything, and others to plunder.”
It was Putin’s first campaign speech for the December 2 parliamentary elections, in which he has controversially floated his own candidacy as head of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party while still continuing his duties as incumbent President.
Many in the crowd held up banners urging the hyper-popular Putin to stay on as leader after presidential polls next March, even though Russia’s Constitution requires him to step down as President after he finishes his second term. Putin gave no hint of his personal plans, but told Russians that if they support him, they should vote for United Russia.
“If there is a victory in December, then there will be a victory next March as well,” he said. “For this renewal to proceed in the right way, successfully and to the benefit of the nation, we only need victory.”
Putin’s public approval rating hit 84 per cent last month. The fortunes of the UR party jumped from around 40 per cent support before Putin joined its campaign to a commanding 67 per cent in a mid-November survey conducted by the independent Levada Centre in Moscow.
Russia’s Supreme Court this week rejected a court challenge by the liberal Union of Right Forces, known by its Russian initials SPS, which had argued Putin’s candidacy is illegal since he is able to use his position as sitting President to command daily newscasts and gain “an unfair advantage”.
“There is no equality of parties at all,” says Nikita Belikh, head of SPS. This is not a democratic campaign at all. On TV 90 per cent of the coverage is given to United Russia, and the other 10 per cent is divided between the rest of the parties.”
Many experts believe Putin will use a UR parliamentary victory to fashion a new role for himself after his presidential term expires.
Others have suggested that he may take advantage a loophole in Russia’s Constitution that limits a President to “two consecutive terms” to resign as President after the Duma polls. In that case, Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov would step in as acting president and Putin would be free to run again for the presidency in March.
Though 15 parties are running in the Duma elections, only one besides UR looks likely to hurdle the 7 per cent barrier for gaining entry to the 450-seat body.
Russia’s still-powerful Communist Party scored 14 per cent in the Levada survey, while all the others logged less than 7 per cent support.