In a setback to a movement attempting to get Vladimir Putin a de facto lifetime term as the ruler of Russia, its top election authority has barred a referendum eliminating term limits for the presidency. This appears to put an end to the draft-Putin efforts started by those who appreciate Putin’s rollback of democracy:
Russia’s top election authority on Wednesday threw out a call for a people’s poll that would clear the way for President Vladimir Putin to stay on in power, making it more likely he will step down as he plans in 2008.
Putin has said repeatedly he will abide by the constitution that restricts a head of state to serving two consecutive four-year terms in power at any one time, and go in 2008.
But this has not stopped supporters from urging the 53-year-old Putin to stay on and in the latest such move a group from a southern Russian region formally sought a referendum to get the two-term rule scrapped.
Rejecting the move, Russia’s election chief Alexander Veshnyakov said: “None of the members of the Central Election Commission, none of the experts, have any doubts that the question in its present form cannot be used for a referendum.”
Supporters of the referendum want Putin to remain in office to “continue the reforms which have begun”, among which are the state’s seizure of private oil companies and the elimination of direct elections for regional governors. Putin’s fans might call these “reforms”, but to the rest of the world it looks much more like a dangerous consolidation of power. The former KGB leader has worked to re-establish an authoritarian government in Moscow, and only term limits will force him to relinquish the reins.
The Central Election Commission’s decision will meet with stiff resistance. Putin remains popular; estimates of his support have varied from 59% to 70%, making the temptation for the referendum all the more irresistible. While Putin has declared that he will not press to change the law limiting his term in office, he has certainly allowed the impression that he would respond to a popular demand for an extension. He is a young man in political terms — especially given Russia’s late-20th-century history — and even out of office will overshadow any potential successor, especially if Putin hand-picks him.
The CEC showed courage in adhering to their constitution. Whether it stops Putin remains to be seen. If he leaves office willingly, it’s only because he has secured his grip on power through more covert means.