Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Should Join the Party

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

With the approach of parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections in March of next year, the Kremlin's political advisors are no doubt devising and pitching various electoral strategies to President Vladimir Putin. While it is unlikely that any of Putin's advisors will recommend it, they should advise him to join a political party and to join one now.

To the tough-minded political strategists on Staraya Ploshchad, such a proposal must appear naive and even reckless. It would unnecessarily tie Putin's re-election prospects to that party's performance in December's elections, they would argue. Further, by joining a single party -- presumably United Russia -- Putin's popularity ratings would certainly lose some of their luster, because his party membership would alienate at least some independent-minded voters. Finally, these analysts would point out that joining a party would needlessly complicate Putin's ability to build coalitions in the next State Duma and to attract broad-based organizational support for his upcoming re-election campaign. Although these concerns are valid on some level, they inadequately consider the broader and longer term political challenges the Russian polity now faces.

Putin can put an end to the vicious circle that Russia's presidential-party relations have been trapped in for the past decade. The Catch-22 has been the following: Presidents have refused to join a party largely because parties were underdeveloped, could not consolidate enough of the vote, and had an uncertain future. And pro-governmental parties have remained underdeveloped, could not consolidate enough of the vote and had an uncertain future largely because Russian presidents would not join them. A major reason that both Russia's Choice and later Our Home Is Russia were essentially stillborn and short-lived parties was that they were burdened with responsibility for the government's performance, but were deprived of a clear connection to, and the unequivocal support of, the most powerful actor in the political system -- Boris Yeltsin.

More recently, the latest "party of power," United Russia, has all but begged for a closer association with Putin. And while Putin has clearly shown less indifference to his party of power than Yeltsin vis-a-vis his, Putin's public support has remained that of a sympathetic outsider. And so United Russia awkwardly remains a "presidential party" without a president.

As Putin approaches his second and final term in office, his political advisors should encourage him to consider his broader role in Russian history -- his legacy. By joining and leading a democratic political party, Putin would establish himself as the Russian leader who finally forged a more reliable, direct and genuine institutional connection between state and society, between political power and policy responsibility. By joining and leading a democratic political party, Putin would finally bring an end to Russia's tsarist and Soviet modes of executive authority that have so often isolated state power from society and obscured accountability.

Putin's official party leadership would also have a transformative effect on United Russia, and on the party system as a whole. Putin's personal popularity and the prestige of his office would bring to United Russia the key element that previous parties of power have lacked -- the ability to attract an enthusiastic, broad grass-roots following. By providing United Russia with a popular leader and an enthusiastic base, Putin could give this top-down, "cadre" party a chance to develop into a more mass-based and lasting right-of-center party. More broadly, when the most powerful figure in the political system decides to engage directly in party politics, the party system will become a more central and durable feature in the political landscape.

A glance across the presidential summit table provides Putin with further arguments for joining a political party. First, the Russian president would notice that all of his counterparts in the G-8 are also members of political parties. Then, at other summit meetings, Putin might take note that neighboring presidents who have refused to join parties -- Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko and Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma -- have unimpressive records of economic and political reform. While a multitude of factors are responsible for the differences in economic prosperity and governance between East and West, it is also clear that countries with executive branches with strong links to society and clear accountability ultimately are governed more effectively and with greater stability than those without such institutional channels. If Putin wants to set Russia on a path to look more like Europe's wealthy and stable democracies and less like Russia's struggling and increasingly isolated Slavic neighbors, then joining a political party clearly is a step in the right direction.

Admittedly, one political strategist close to the Kremlin, Gleb Pavlovsky, has recently suggested that Putin should consider joining United Russia -- but only after the party has proved itself in December's parliamentary elections by becoming a majority party. But this insistence that the party of power must prove itself before enjoying an unequivocal association with the president was also Yeltsin's strategy in 1993 and 1995 -- a strategy that by the late 1990s resulted in two failed parties and a politically isolated president.

Instead, Putin's advisors should encourage him to join a party now. Putin has amassed considerable political capital, with popularity ratings that remain persistently and remarkably high. Now is the time to use that political capital to ensure a cooperative Duma for Putin's second term and to ensure the continuation of his reforms. If Putin chooses to lead United Russia in the near future, the party will undoubtedly win December's elections and likely earn a majority in the Duma. In contrast, simply borrowing a page from the 1999 campaign playbook and scheduling several pat-on-the-back photo-ops with United Russia's leaders may not be enough to secure a working majority in the Duma this time around.

Putin's joining the party now would also demonstrate his political courage and toughness. By agreeing to lead and transform United Russia even when he did not have to, Putin would elevate his reputation as a bold yet responsible and foresighted leader. In addition, Putin's decision to lead would also throw United Russia's rivals off balance during the campaign, as opposition parties will be less likely to make aggressive attacks on a party led by a highly popular president.

Kremlin advisors should remind Putin that the risks of remaining above party politics are also high. Recent public opinion polls show United Russia's popularity is flagging. And if the history of previous parties of power is any guide, a state-sponsored, top-down, ideologically nondescript party led by bureaucrats is likely to face great difficulty in winning over a majority of voters. If United Russia fares poorly in December, then Putin could face a recalcitrant Duma and a slowdown in his reform plans starting early next year.

By the time of the parliamentary elections, Russia will have lived a full decade under the Yeltsin Constitution of 1993. This has been a sufficient transition period when it could be argued that a president should refrain from an openly partisan approach to politics. While Yeltsin will always be remembered for the 1993 Constitution, Putin has the chance to be remembered as the leader who rehabilitated political parties and put that Constitution on a more solid societal foundation.

Alexander Sokolowski, an adjunct professor of comparative politics at George Washington University, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.