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Landslide Expected as Russians Vote for President

A giant campaign billboard for Dmitri Medvedev features Vladimir Putin, who many believe will hold on to power in the new post of prime minister. The advertisement reads "Together We'll Win!"
Gregory Feifer, NPR
A giant campaign billboard for Dmitri Medvedev features Vladimir Putin, who many believe will hold on to power in the new post of prime minister. The advertisement reads "Together We'll Win!"

Russians cast ballots for a new leader on Sunday. President Vladimir Putin's chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, is all but certain to win in an election that opposition leaders say was rigged. They're condemning the vote as a Soviet-style ritual that could leave Putin holding on to power from behind the scenes.

Only a major surprise can keep Medvedev from winning the presidency, so you'd think it would be his big day. After all, Putin anointed his dapper young protege to be his chosen successor, and Medvedev's poll numbers have topped 70 percent. But despite all that, it's not Medvedev who's been making the headlines.

On a building next to Red Square in central Moscow, a giant billboard advertising Medvedev's candidacy rises many stories high. It's Medvedev together with Putin, dressed in a leather bomber jacket. Medvedev is smiling at something Putin is saying. The billboard reads, "Together we'll win," and it reflects something many believe about the election: It's not about Russians picking whom they want to lead their country; the choice has been Putin's alone.

Pilot and Co-Pilot

Putin may be stepping down as president because his term limit runs out, but Medvedev says he wants to appoint Putin prime minister. Many believe he'll use the position to hold on to power.

To the last day of campaigning, Putin has remained very literally in the front seat. When he and Medvedev visited a military airbase last week and climbed into a plane's cockpit, Putin took the pilot's seat. Medvedev sat in the co-pilot's.

And it was Putin who sternly announced Russia is boosting spending on defense by billions of dollars, partly to build a new state aircraft manufacturing facility at the base. Medvedev, a former lawyer, sat upright in the audience, listening attentively.

Opposition Candidates

Such state visits by Putin and Medvedev have received the lion's share of news coverage on state-controlled national television. The other candidates have mostly been confined to short debates among themselves at odd hours of the day — and limited television advertising.

The Communist Party candidate, Gennadii Zyuganov, is Medvedev's closest competitor. Many believe Zyuganov is the only politician who approaches a real opposition figure in the election. But the Communist Party has long ceased being a political force in Russia. The other two candidates are a pro-Kremlin nationalist and a little-known liberal party leader who many believe is backed by a Kremlin trying to create the appearance of a real contest.

All major Kremlin critics have been barred from the election, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. He's joined other opposition leaders in calling for Russians to boycott the ballot.

"It's a non-election. That's simply a farce imitation of important democratic institution. And elections are not free, because there is no access for people to nominate their candidate. Elections without choice, that's not an election," Kasyanov says.

What Happens Next?

But while the result of Sunday's vote is a foregone conclusion, what happens next isn't. During his rule, Putin has kept control in the hands of a very powerful president — while his prime ministers have been completely subservient. During a news conference last month, Putin made it clear that matters could change.

He said the constitution gives the prime minister great powers, including the ability to form the country's budget and oversee its defense. He said the president may be the guarantor of the constitution, but that the prime minister is the country's highest executive.

It's unclear how Medvedev will act once he's in office. He'll have the power to fire the prime minister and dismiss parliament. But many here believe Sunday's election is only a formality, part of the Kremlin's plan to keep real power in the hands of Vladimir Putin.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.
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