Putin’s victory puts him closer to becoming leader for life
MOSCOW — With his reelection as president over the weekend, Vladimir Putin has taken a step closer to becoming Russian leader for life.
On paper, Putin’s victory gave him a new six-year term as president. But some of his most visible allies quickly signaled they saw it as a mandate for something greater than that: leader of the Russian people, rising above politics at a time when the country’s very existence is threatened by an aggressive West.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of pro-Kremlin network RT, wrote that Putin had turned from president to ‘‘our leader’’ — or “vozhd,” a word with medieval roots that Soviets once used for Stalin.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist presidential candidate who supports Putin, predicted on national television that ‘‘these elections were the last ones.’’ And a parade of pro-Kremlin commentators, politicians, and officials claimed that Putin’s victory represented nothing less than the unity and determination of a people under siege.
The Kremlin even gave some credit to foreign nations for the outpouring of support for 65-year-old president. Ella A. Pamfilova, chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, said pressure on Russia from Western leaders helped to generate the 77 percent support for Putin.
“Our people always unite when the chips are down,” Pamfilova said on television, in what appeared to be a reference to what Britain has said was a Russian nerve agent attack on one of its former spies, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
She said Western leaders, whom she did not name, “contributed to the consolidation and unification of our people.”
Konstantin Gaaze, an independent political analyst, said the election could be a turning point for Russia. ‘‘The road to presidency for life, or some other kind of lifetime post as the country’s leader, opened today,’’ he said.
Russia’s constitution would bar Putin from running again in 2024. But for months, there has been speculation in Moscow that Putin will either change the constitution to allow him to run yet again — or create a new office that would turn him into a supreme national leader.
In the wake of Sunday’s election, which the government said drew a 68 percent turnout, that speculation has burst into the open. Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin adviser turned pro-Kremlin commentator, said he was certain that Putin ‘‘won’t go anywhere in 2024.’’
‘‘It’s too early to say for sure what form it will take,’’ Chesnakov said. ‘‘I can’t say if he will leave the office of president, or perhaps it will be extended somehow.’’
In 2008, Putin reached his limit of two four-year terms and couldn’t run again. So he endorsed his associate Dmitry Medvedev for president, and Medvedev named Putin to the post of prime minister, in which he continued to call the shots for the next four years.
Zhirinovsky, a staple of Russian politics since he first ran for president in 1991, told the Interfax news agency that he now expects Putin to follow the lead of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who recently abolished presidential term limits in his country.
On a state television talk show Sunday evening, Zhirinovsky said that because voters seem uninterested in electing a different leader, ‘‘we should get rid of elections.’’
The growing talk of a Putin lifetime presidency is being accompanied by increasingly dire rhetoric about Russia’s confrontation with the West.
International fury over the poisoning of Skripal, these allies say, is only the latest in a series of Western attempts to keep Russia down. Olympic doping, Syria, Ukraine, hacking, and election interference all fall into that category, too.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s best-selling tabloid, said Putin had won an enormous new electoral mandate stemming from a ‘‘colossal demand for a response to the piled-up grievances’’ that Russians have against the West. ‘‘From these heights, Putin will now be able to do everything he deems necessary,’’ it said.
One of the most striking responses, however, came from RT editor Simonyan, who employed the term vozhd, in the sense of master, for Putin.
Overall, Putin received 56.4 million votes out of more than 110 million eligible voters, the most ever cast for a Russian president. The closest runner-up was Pavel N. Grudinin from the Communist Party with 11.78 percent, followed by Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, a right-winger, with 5.65 percent. Ksenia A. Sobchak, the only woman, won just 1.68 percent.
Leaders of the observation mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the extensive coverage of Putin by state news media gave him a significant advantage over his opponents.
Observers also said they received reports of many election irregularities, including pressuring of workers to vote, stuffing of ballot boxes with extra ballots, and discrepancies in ballot numbers.