If a tearful Vladimir Putin feels emotionally overwhelmed by his election victory in Russia, he might care to recall that two of the Arab dictators who were toppled last year – Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia – had previously been re-elected with thumping majorities.
The question is whether Putin’s success in Russia, where he claims to have won 63 per cent of the vote, should be seen as another chapter in his political decline, or the beginning of a genuine resurgence. On balance, the former possibility looks more likely. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe say that the whole election was “clearly skewed” in Putin’s favor and that over 3,000 reports of voting fraud have been received so far.
When a leader’s acolytes feel the need to rig an election on his behalf, that is never a good sign. Just as Mubarak and Ben Ali staged sham elections to disguise their own unpopularity, Putin may be doing the same. The Russian president’s problem is that the implicit bargain he struck with many of his country’s people, whereby they tolerated state corruption and brutality in return for rising prosperity, has broken down. Russia’s economy has slowed, real wages for the majority are no longer growing and that means fewer and fewer are prepared to overlook the seedier side of Putin’s political dominance.
While he clearly retains a good deal of popular support, not to mention the canniness and determination of a survivor, few would expect Putin to survive for the two consecutive six year terms that he is now eligible to serve. Does anyone really think that he will now be in power until 2024? At the very least, it seems probable that this will be his last term of office. If so, the question of succession may become the underlying theme of Russian politics.