President-elect Vladimir Putin is preparing to get rid of his United Russia party, still ruling but languishing in polls, by installing his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev as party boss instead of himself, analysts said.
“The reshuffle means Putin is gradually dumping United Russia,” said Yury Korgunyuk, an expert on Russian party politics with the Indem think-tank in Moscow.
Putin, who headed United Russia without being a member, said on Tuesday he will quit the party after his inauguration on May 7 because the president should be a non-party figure. He nominated Medvedev, a prime minister hopeful, in his place.
Medvedev, who headed United Russia’s party list at the parliamentary elections in December, may be installed at United Russia’s helm at a snap convention on May 26, party officials said.
United Russia scrapped to retain the majority in the federal legislature in December, but critics put its victory down to administrative resources. Tens of thousands protested the alleged vote fraud at rallies in Moscow, denouncing it as “the party of crooks and thieves.”
Party officials have been discussing a reform of United Russia since December, promising to divide it into three factions with distinct ideologies, likely liberal, conservative and patriotic. Media and analysts speculated that the party of power may be split into several parties or disbanded altogether.
Medvedev may make the final attempt to reform the party with its “rocky image,” said independent political analyst Pavel Svyatenkov.
But his chances of success are slim, pundits said.
“Medvedev is a pro-Western liberal, while the majority of United Russia are anti-Western advocates of a strong state. They’re a poor fit,” said Yevgeny Minchenko of the Institute for Political Expertise.
“Bureaucrats don’t like Medvedev. He’ll face a tough ideological struggle,” Minchenko said.
Putin realizes United Russia is failing, but cannot just disband it overnight because it is the means through which the Kremlin controls the regions, said Korgunyuk. Since the mid-2000s, United Russia has had majorities in most local legislatures and most mayors in regional capitals were its members, but the party suffered a string of setbacks at local elections since the December parliamentary vote.
United Russia’s support rating rose slightly to 52 percent by mid-April, compared to 49 percent in December, according to a poll by state-run VTsIOM which had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. But Korgunyuk dismissed the increase as “dubious” and statistically insignificant.
Putin is freeing his hands for political maneuver, which could be a radical revamp of United Russia, creation of a new party or possibly some unexpected political reform, said Minchenko.
“They’ll be gradually transferring political assets into some new structure while leaving the old one burdened with all the debts, much like it’s done in business,” Korgunyuk said.
United Russia was undone by its reliance on administrative resource and suppression of inter-party discussion for the sake of the “power vertical,” Korgunyuk said.
“The party was like a boxer who can only fight if flanked by two cops with truncheons,” he said.
“They’ll be building a new proper party from now on, as they’ve should have done from the get-go,” Korgunyuk said. He gave no firm timeframe, but Svyatenkov said United Russia’s fate is likely to be decided in the next two years.