The Kremlin said experts will study the idea of calling early presidential elections, a move that could give Vladimir Putin a fresh term while his approval rating remains near a record high.
“This is a new proposal,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on a conference call just minutes after former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime ally of the president, mooted the idea at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. “Political experts and circles will discuss this idea like they do others.”
Putin, 62, is facing growing pressure from inside and outside the government for new measures to pull the world’s largest energy exporter out of its first recession in six years. He won elections in 2000 and 2004 before becoming premier for four years to abide by constitutional limits. When he returned to the Kremlin in 2012, the term had been extended to six years, with the next election scheduled for March 2018.
Kudrin, one of the few people Putin has publicly called a friend, told a panel discussion that he “really liked” the decision by long-running Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to call early elections in April while simultaneously announcing a bold reform program. Nazarbayev, in power for more than a quarter of a century, won with 98 percent of the vote.
While Putin’s ratings remain above 80 percent, the Russian leader may be concerned that the current economic slump will eat away at his popularity the longer it goes on, said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.
“The idea of bringing forward the presidential vote is being discussed at the moment,” Makarkin said by phone. “It could happen as early as next year. By 2018, his re-election might prove tougher and he wants guarantees it will go well.”
The central bank said Monday that the economy may contract for two years in a row for the first time in the Putin era if oil prices remain at $60 a barrel through 2016. Growth averaged 7 percent during his first two terms.
Even as the economy slumped, the ruble rebounded from last year’s plunge. It has gained 13 percent against the dollar in the past three months, the most in the world.
First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, who was on the panel with Kudrin, said the issue of moving up the date of the presidential election was for the Constitutional Court to decide. One legal provision that would allow for that would be if the country was deemed to be under threat, Makarkin said.
Russia’s Security Council in March accused the U.S. of plotting to oust Putin by financing the opposition and encouraging mass demonstrations, like it did in the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union and the Arab world.
Putin, who is locked in the worst confrontation since the Cold War with the U.S. and its allies, has been cracking down on dissent by prosecuting opposition leaders and tightening the state’s control over the media and non-governmental organizations. The president is scheduled to give the keynote speech at the forum in his hometown on Friday.
Kudrin left the government in September 2011 after more than a decade as finance minister because of a public feud with then-President Dmitry Medvedev over military spending.
“Even if we’re not calling early elections in the Duma, why don’t we bring forward presidential elections and announce a reform program that would be easier to implement with a mandate from the voters,” Kudrin said. He ruled out running himself.
Putin ceded the presidency after completing the maximum two consecutive terms allowed by the constitution in 2008. Medvedev became president and appointed Putin his premier, with the two swapping jobs in May 2012 after disputed parliamentary elections that sparked the biggest protests of Putin’s rule.
The government this week backed a bill to move up parliamentary elections currently scheduled for December 2016. The vote may be rescheduled for September to help pro-Putin parties ensure victory over the opposition because it would be preceded by a low-key campaign over the summer, when much of the population is at the dacha, the RBC newspaper reported in May, citing unidentified lawmakers.
Kudrin, who as finance minister presided over budget surpluses between 2000 and 2008, has questioned government expectations for a quick economic turnaround, saying earlier this month that companies are only now beginning to feel the pain of collapsing demand.
The economy is now “in the eye of the storm,” Kudrin said on Thursday.
Kudrin may be jockeying to replace Medvedev as prime minister, said former Kremlin adviser Stanislav Belkovsky. Putin doesn’t need early elections to “liberalize” the economy, Belkovsky said on his Facebook account.
Under Russia’s constitution, the powers of the head of state can be terminated in the event of the president’s resignation, incapacitation or impeachment. Once terminated, elections must be held within three months, as was the case when Boris Yeltsin resigned on the last day of 1999, elevating then-premier Putin to acting president and giving him the inside track to the Kremlin.
Putin could opt to resign and then stand again for president while Medvedev served as acting head of state, though it would be less risky to secure a ruling from the Constitutional Court saying the country’s under threat, according to Makarkin, the political analyst.
“In any case, Putin intends to prolong his mandate,” Makarkin said. “He has identified himself so deeply with Russia that he can’t see anyone to entrust with the leadership of the country.”