MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin swept back into the Kremlin Sunday with a landslide election win that analysts said augured well for economic reform, but liberals fear could spell bad news for democracy.
An exit poll, published after voting ended in the world’s biggest country, showed Putin had easily brushed aside his five rivals and led the field by a massive 69 per cent of the vote.
“The leader is definite. No change is seen. The leader, and obvious leader, is Vladimir Putin,” declared Alexander Veshnyakov, head of the Central Electoral Commission.
His victory, a foregone conclusion, gives the former KGB spy enormous powers, which he says he will use to pursue the economic reforms needed to drag Russia from the mire left after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
The massive pro-Putin vote among the 109 million electorate reflected satisfaction with the stability and prosperity he had brought after the unpredictable rule of Boris Yeltsin.
Early partial results put communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov in second place with 14.3 percent and two others, nationalist Sergei Glazyev and liberal Irina Khakamada, a strident Putin critic, well behind with 4.7 and 4.6 percent.
“After the election Putin has got both a mandate and the government instruments to be able to really follow through his policy agenda,” said Roland Nash, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital.
Other analysts said it remained to be seen how Putin would pursue economic reform, deliver on pledges to slash red tape and bring a measure of wealth to Russia’s masses, whose living standards plunged in the turmoil after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
PUTIN AND THE OLIGARCHS
Another crucial question is how Putin deals with Russia’s post-Soviet super-rich in the wake of the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in jail on tax evasion and fraud charges.
“The next big thing that we will be back focusing on is how this guy wants to deal with ‘oligarchs’ in his second term…,” said Al Breach, chief economist, Brunswick UBS.
Liberal critics say Putin’s autocratic style, the war in rebel Chechnya that goes largely unreported by Russian media and the promotion of state security officials to senior positions pose threats to the future of democracy.
Even before polling ended, the United States questioned the fairness of the campaign in which state-dominated media had given Putin blanket coverage denied to his opponents.
“…You’ve got to let candidates have all access to the media that the president has,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said on the “Fox News Sunday” program.
“It’s not entirely clear to me why they go out of their way to keep opposition candidates from fully participating in the electoral process. It’s not good but I don’t think it signals the total demise of democracy in Russia,” he said.
The only real threat to Putin’s re-election had been that less than 50 percent of the 109 million-strong electorate would vote. But hours before polls closed electoral authorities said the threshold had been exceeded, making the vote valid.
Putin now has few domestic obstacles. December’s election to the State Duma, or lower house, was won by pro-Kremlin MPs. And Putin’s government, appointed last week, is stacked with apolitical technocrats certain to do their president’s bidding.
He has earned repeated criticism from the West for human rights abuses in rebel Chechnya, where two bomb explosions were reported near polling stations. No-one was injured.
But financial investors have faith in a strong Putin to push the resource-rich country onto a new path of economic growth, even if democracy has to take second place.
“I’ve voted for Putin. Let him stay for four years more to finish what he has began. Life here has become more worthy, Russia is looking better to the rest of world,” said Marina, a shop-assistant in the old Czarist capital St. Petersburg.