A Result That Might Embarrass Medvedev

APBuilders working atop a St. Petersburg building with a giant election poster.
No one doubts that Dmitry Medvedev will win the presidential election. The riddle, rather, is by how wide a margin.

With his popularity topping 70 percent, Medvedev could easily surpass Vladimir Putin's landslide victory in 2004, creating a potentially uncomfortable situation in which the protege ends up embarrassing the mentor.

Putin has taken great pride in his 71.3 percent victory in 2004, a remarkable outcome that turned some Western leaders green with envy. He won 52.3 percent of the vote in 2000.

How many people will vote for Medvedev on March 2 remains something of a mystery. Recent opinion polls indicate that anywhere from 49 percent to 82 percent of registered voters will check off his name on the ballot.

The percentage of votes that Medvedev wins is important because it will help determine the legitimacy of his rule and the strength of his mandate to introduce reforms.

A senior official at Medvedev's campaign headquarters declined to say how many votes the campaign was aiming to collect, saying it was confidential information. But he stressed that the outcome would not resemble "Turkmen results." Turkmenistan's late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, consistently won nearly 100 percent of the vote.

"Anything above 85 percent for Medvedev would be very improbable because there are core Communist voters and Zhirinovsky's voters," said the campaign official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Medvedev's rivals in the election are Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Andrei Bogdanov, an independent. Among them, Zyuganov is the most popular, with a rating of around 15 percent.

The campaign official refused to comment on whether Medvedev might get more votes than Putin, saying, "This issue is too speculative."

In the Far East, Primorye region officials have been told to get 65 percent of the vote for Medvedev, Kommersant reported Wednesday, citing a copy of a document distributed among local officials. Local administration and regional election officials denied the report.

The 65 percent figure, however, matches other Kremlin expectations.

Sergei Cherkashin / ap
An election official collecting early ballots on the Yamal Peninsula this week.
Before the State Duma elections in December, election officials said the Kremlin was seeking a voter turnout of 65 percent and a 65 percent victory for United Russia, whose list of candidates was headed by Putin. Turnout reached 63 percent, while United Russia got 64 percent.

Eighty-two percent of voters plan to choose Medvedev, according to a nationwide survey of 1,600 people conducted by the independent Levada Center in late January.

A similar survey released Thursday by state-owned VTsIOM put the figure at 72.9 percent.

A third national polling agency, FOM, found that only 49 percent intended to vote for Medvedev. FOM, which is seen as Kremlin-friendly, polled 3,000 people on Feb. 9 and 10.

Putin's high popularity has directly contributed to Medvedev's. Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky said the lion's share of Medvedev's popularity was actually Putin's.

"Voters are pleased with their alliance -- and to a greater degree than Putin and Medvedev expected," Pavlovsky said at a news conference earlier this month.

Another reason Medvedev's popularity is so high is that there are fewer rivals than in the 2004 election, said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. "There were six candidates then, and now we have only four. Bring in two more, and it would cost Medvedev at least 10 percent of his rating," Makarkin said.

Political analysts interviewed for this report agreed that the Kremlin would probably manipulate the results of the election, but they differed on how many votes the Kremlin would want Medvedev to win.

Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information, said Putin would want a very high -- and thus questionable -- vote for Medvedev. "This would make Medvedev a less legitimate president in the eyes of the West. Medvedev would then need a stronger Putin in order to legitimize his government," Mukhin said.

Citing his sources in Medvedev's campaign headquarters, he said they hoped to collect 70 percent of the vote.

But zealous officials in some regional administrations could push Medvedev's vote count to 90 percent and even higher, he said. United Russia scored nearly 100 percent of the vote in several North Caucasus republics in the Duma elections.

Mikhail Delyagin, head of the Institute for Globalization Problems, predicted that Medvedev would get 52.5 percent of the vote, close to Putin's result in 2000. "Putin needs to humble Medvedev as a leader who is not really independent and is a nobody without Putin," Delyagin said.

But what does Putin himself think?

The president beamed back in April 2004 when then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi expressed awe over his 71.3 percent victory the previous month. "I have to speak with Putin, since he needs to explain to me what I must do to get 71 percent of the vote in Italy," Berlusconi said during a visit to Lipetsk.

Putin has never given any public indication about what results he would like to see on March 2. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested that Putin would prefer a high percentage. "Like everyone who supports Medvedev for president, Putin believes the higher the results, the better," he said.

But Putin did seem to strike a jealous note during his annual news conference this month when he announced that he would break bureaucratic tradition and not hang a portrait of the next president in his prime minister's office.

"I don't need to hang up a portrait to build relations with Dmitry Medvedev if he is elected president," Putin said.