Presidential elections are approaching in Russia. We already know who will be the winner

(CNN) — Russia is approaching presidential elections that will almost certainly extend Vladimir Putin’s rule throughout this decade and into the 2030s.

Most votes will be cast over three days starting on March 15, although early and mail-in voting is expected to take place soon, including in occupied areas of Ukraine where Russian forces are trying to take over.

But this is no ordinary election; The referendum is essentially a constitutional box-ticking exercise with no possibility of removing Putin from power.

The president’s dominance over the Russian electoral system has already tightened as the elections approach. The country’s only anti-war candidate is banned from running in elections, and Alexei Navalny, the poisoned and jailed former opposition leader who was Russia’s most prominent anti-Putin voice, died last Friday.

Here’s what you need to know about the election.

When and where will the elections be held?

Voting will take place from Friday, March 15 to Sunday, March 17, making it the first Russian presidential election to be held over three days.

If no candidate gets more than half the votes, a second round of voting will take place three weeks later, although it would be a big surprise if this were necessary. Russians elect the presidency alone; The next legislative elections, which form the Duma, are scheduled for 2026.

Early voting has already begun in hard-to-reach areas, with about 70,000 people in remote areas of Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District able to vote, according to state news agency TASS. The region represents more than a third of Russia’s total area, but only about 5% of its population.

According to Russian newspaper Kommersant, in early March, the vote will be expanded to parts of Ukraine currently occupied by Russian forces, although exact dates have not yet been confirmed.

Russia has already held regional votes and referendums in those occupied territories, an effort that the international community has dismissed as a farce, but the Kremlin views as crucial to its Russification campaign.

How long has Putin been in power?

Putin signed a law in 2021 allowing him to run for two more presidential terms, potentially extending his term to 2036, after a referendum last year allowed him to reset the clock on his term limits. Was allowed.

This election will mark the beginning of the first of those two additional terms.

He has essentially been the country’s head of state throughout the 21st century and has rewritten the rules and conventions of the Russian political system to expand his powers.

This already makes him Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Putin’s previous efforts to maintain control included a 2008 constitutional amendment that extended the presidential term from four to six years, and a temporary job swap with then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev the same year , which preceded a quick return to the presidency in 2012.



Who else is running?

Candidates in Russian elections are tightly controlled by the CEC, allowing Putin to compete against a favorable field and reducing the chances of an opposition candidate gaining ground.

Same thing is happening this year also. Callum Fraser of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank wrote, “Each candidate presents different ideologies and domestic policies, but collectively they aim to tighten his control over Russia during Putin’s next presidential term.” promote.”

Nikolay Kharitonov will represent the Communist Party, which has been allowed to field a candidate in every election this century but has not won even a fifth vote since Putin’s first presidential election.

Two other Duma politicians, Leonid Slutsky and Vladislav Davankov, are also in the running. Davankov is deputy chairman of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, while Slutsky represents the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, a party previously led by ultranationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who died in 2022. All are reliably considered Kremlin supporters.

But notably, there is no candidate who opposes Putin’s war in Ukraine; Boris Nadezhdin, the only anti-war figure in the first camp, was banned from standing before the CEC in early February after the body claimed it did not receive enough valid signatures to nominate his candidacy. Were.

In December, another independent candidate who had spoken out openly against the war in Ukraine, Yekaterina Duntsova, was rejected by the CEC, citing alleged errors in her campaign group’s registration documents. Duntsova later called on people to support Nadezhdin’s candidacy.

In early February, opposition activist Leonid Volkov, writing on social media, dismissed the polls as a “circus”, saying they were meant to indicate overwhelming public support for Putin. “It is important to understand what the March ‘elections’ mean for Putin. They are a propaganda effort to spread disillusionment among voters, Volkov said.

Are the elections fair?

According to independent bodies and observers inside and outside the country, elections in Russia are neither free nor fair and essentially serve as a formality to extend Putin’s tenure in power.

According to global democracy watchdog Freedom House, Putin’s successful campaigns are in part the result of “preferential treatment in the media, numerous abuses in office, and procedural irregularities during vote counting.”

Outside of the election cycle, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine sometimes targets voters with pro-Putin content, and many news websites based outside Russia were banned following the invasion of Ukraine, although young voters and tech-savvy People have started using VPNs to access them. ,

Protests are also strictly prohibited, making public expressions of protest a dangerous and rare occurrence.

Ballots bearing Putin's name are being prepared ahead of next month's elections.

Ballots bearing Putin’s name are being prepared ahead of next month’s elections. Vladimir Nikolayev/AFP/Getty Images

Then, as the elections approach, it is almost inevitable that the candidacies of genuine opposition candidates will be withdrawn or they will be barred from running for office, as Nadezhdin and Duntsova found during this cycle.

“Opposition politicians and activists are often victims of fabricated criminal cases and other forms of administrative harassment designed to impede their participation in the political process,” Freedom House said in its recent global report.

Is Putin popular in Russia?

Actually measuring popular opinion is extremely difficult in Russia, where few independent think tanks operate under tight surveillance and where, even in legitimate surveys, many Russians are afraid to criticize the Kremlin.

But Putin has certainly benefited from a political landscape tilted dramatically in his favor. The Levada Center, a non-governmental polling organization, reports that Putin’s approval rating exceeds 80%, an astonishing figure that is almost unknown among Western politicians and a substantial increase in his rating in the three years before the invasion of Ukraine. Is.

The invasion gave Putin a nationalist message to mobilize Russians, and even as Russia’s campaign faltered during 2023, the war retained widespread support.

As the elections approach, national security is a priority for Russians; Ukrainian attacks on Russian border areas have made the war feel closer to home for many inside the country, but support for the invasion – euphemistically called a “special military operation” – remains high.

The Levada Center found in late 2023 that “rising inflation and rising food prices could have a lasting impact on the mood of Russians,” with an increase in the proportion of Russians cutting spending.

But that doesn’t mean Russians expect the elections to change the direction of the country. Putin benefits greatly from indifference; Russians have never seen a democratic transfer of power between rival political parties, and expressions of anger against the Kremlin are so rare that much of the population may be insulated from politics.

Putin’s former speechwriter Abbas Galyamov told CNN this week that discontent against the president is growing in Russia. Galyamov said Putin is at least trying to remove opposition leaders from society to ensure that dissent remains “unstructured”, “disorganized” and “leaderless” ahead of future elections.

What impact will Navalny’s death have on the elections?

The timing of the death of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic, served to emphasize the Russian leader’s control over his country’s politics.

In his last court appearance before his death, Navalny urged prison service personnel to “vote against Putin”.

Alexey Navalny

“I have a suggestion: Vote for a candidate other than Putin. To vote against Putin, it is enough to vote for another candidate,” Navalny said on February 8.

He died after feeling unwell and fainting during a walk in the prison on Friday, according to the Russian prison service. The cause of his death is unclear and his body was not handed over to his mother until this weekend after a dispute with authorities.

This has cast a frightening shadow on the campaign. Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, urged the EU “not to recognize the elections” in an impassioned speech at the EU Foreign Affairs Council days after his death.

“Putin murdered my husband just a month before the so-called elections. These elections are fake, but Putin still needs them. For promotion. He wants everyone to believe that everyone in Russia supports and admires him. “Don’t believe the hype,” he said.

CNN’s Anna Chernova, Pauline Lockwood and Maria Knight contributed reporting.

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