President Putin seems to have done something that would make him the envy of any national leader: He has won the trust of the majority of his people.
The December 7, 2003, parliamentary elections in Russia closed with the Putin-endorsed United Russia party winning nearly 37 percent of the vote. Combined with other Putin-supporting allied parties, the president’s support totaled around 58 percent.
Half of the Duma’s 450 seats are apportioned based on the vote for each party that receives more than 5 percent of the total. The other seats are determined by individual candidates in local constituencies. If Putin-supporting candidates gain in individual constituency votes, this could easily give the Kremlin the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution. Rumors abound that Putin is planning to extend the presidential terms beyond the current two-term maximum, retaining his power for years to come.
What does this all mean for Russia? Putin’s enormous popularity—over 80 percent according to recent polls—and his near-certain re-election in the upcoming March presidential elections, mean that Russia’s president has essentially been handed over a great deal more power.
What is astonishing is that he has amassed the trust of his people without telling them much about what he plans to do. “Analysts agreed what was most striking about the election was that so few people had the slightest clue what Putin would do next since United Russia’s main plank has been simply to support the president—and no other serious issue had arisen” (Agence France Presse, Dec. 8, 2003).
Putin has demonstrated his willingness to wield a heavy hand, most recently in the arrest of tycoons on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. Accused by some as authoritarian, this approach has nonetheless gone down well with the public. What is certain is that Putin’s grip on power and his corresponding willingness to apply it will only increase in the near future.