Russian Prime Minister Putin has gone on the offensive. After a couple weeks of dreadful international news about his re-election campaign, he decided it was time to burnish his reputation with the international media. So he picked up the pen and wrote a piece for The Guardian which brims with Western terminology. No one who reads the piece (you can read it HERE) can fail to notice that he is clearly out to please his Western detractors. His soothing words about Russian civil society, the need to fight corruption and his signal to be willing to grant more democratic powers to the regions, have been demanded by the Russian opposition for a long time.
So far so good. But then he drops what, undoubtedly, he believes, is only a minor qualification of Russian democracy. He notes that Russia should never suffer the ‘circus of competing politicians to make unrealistic promises’ to the electorate. In other words, democracy yes, but only with the right candidates, presumably those who have been vetted by his stooges in the Kremlin.
It is fascinating that Putin’s ‘net’ to political competition has more than faint echoes with some of the rhetoric of Western politicians. In times of crisis, politicians often advocate grand coalitions, compromises between former adversaries, and favour technocratic decision making over political squabbles. Yet, what would we loose if there was no political competition?
Democracy is not simply the acclamation of a pre-ordained selected candidate. The essence of democratic politics is the struggle of ideas for support amongst the electorate. The willingness to grant people choice and the ability to express their preferences in a parliamentary election is at the heart of the democratic mandate.
And choice in turn empowers people, who can reject as well as accept as they see fit. It is this fundamental liberty which resides in political choice that Putin’s minor qualification undermines. Without free choice between candidates, there can be no struggle for ideas, and without competition of ideas, society deprives itself of a critical mechanism to identify solutions which are at once workable and command majority support.
Putin’s suggestion that political competition would lead to unrealistic promises, reveals the profound flaw at the core of Russian institutions: parliamentarians without real power are tempted to resort to irresponsible populism, and an electorate that is not trusted to exercise its popular mandate, refuses to engage in the public debate about the future of the country. The result is apathy and widespread resignation.
But of course, there may just be one beneficiary of such a scenario: Putin himself.
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