What Russians are being told about Putin’s re-election

It was at a grand military awards ceremony last December that Vladimir Putin told the Russian public he would stand for the presidency for a fifth time.

Voting is now taking place over three days, even though the result is not in doubt as he has no credible opponent.

Polling stations opened in the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia’s easternmost region, at 08:00 local time on Friday (20:00 GMT on Thursday) and will finally close in the westernmost Kaliningrad enclave at 20:00 on Sunday.

At last December’s solemn event in one of the Kremlin’s most opulent halls, Russia’s leader of 24 years had just handed out top honours to soldiers who had taken part in Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

He was chatting with a small group of participants when the commander of a pro-Russian unit in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk region approached him.

“We need you, Russia needs you!” declared Lt-Col Artyom Zhoga, asking him to run as a candidate in Russia’s forthcoming presidential election. Everyone voiced their support.

Vladimir Putin nodded: “Now is the time for making decisions. I will be running for the post of president of the Russian Federation.”

His spokesman Dmitry Peskov later described the decision to run as “absolutely spontaneous”. But the Kremlin rarely leaves its choreography to chance.

Instead, straight away its well-oiled media machine swung into action.

On all state channels, 71-year-old President Putin was promoted as a national leader who stood head and shoulders above any potential rivals.

Kremlin Press Office Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meets with athletes at the Palace of Sambo in Krasnodar, Russia on March 7, 2024Kremlin Press Office
Vladimir Putin does not need to campaign – his face is rarely absent from state TV
“Support for the president transcends party support alone,” reported one correspondent on state TV news later that week. “Vladimir Putin is the people’s candidate!”

He has already been in power in Russia longer than any ruler since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

He has been president since 2000, apart from four years as prime minister because of a two-term limit imposed by the Russian constitution.

He has since changed the rules to give himself a clean slate to run again in 2024 by “switching back to zero” his previous terms. That means he could also run for another six-year term in 2030, when he will turn 78.

During his time in office, Vladimir Putin has methodically tightened his grip on power so no real threat to his rule exists any longer. His most outspoken critics are either dead, in jail or in exile.

REUTERS/Yulia Morozova Alexei Navalny appears on a screen via video link from the IK-6 penal colony in the Vladimir region, during a court hearing to consider an appeal against his sentence in the criminal case on numerous charges, including the creation of an extremist organization, in Moscow, Russia September 26, 2023REUTERS/Yulia Morozova
The only major opposition figure in Russia, Alexei Navalny, is now dead – his widow says he was murdered
Yet the Kremlin remains determined to give a semblance of legitimacy to Russia’s electoral process.

Although there can be no doubt about the ultimate election result, the authorities seem to care greatly about a high turnout, which will be presented as evidence of his popular mandate.

Turnout at the last election in 2018 was officially 68%, but international observers reported several cases of ballot-stuffing.

This year, voting will be easier than ever before, ending on Sunday.

In the parts of occupied Ukraine that Russia calls its “new regions”, polls opened 10 days before election day, and social media has been awash with ads urging people to go vote.

When they do, they will be faced with a choice – or rather a semblance of one.

Joining Russia’s leader on the ballot will be Nikolai Kharitonov, representing the Communist Party, which remains Russia’s second most popular party, more than 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. It draws its support from a small but loyal base of those nostalgic for their Soviet past.

Russian Communist Party Nikolai Kharitonov is portrayed in a campaign video walking to his imagined new job in the KremlinRussian Communist Party
Nikolai Kharitonov is portrayed in a campaign video walking to his imagined new job in the Kremlin
The other two candidates are Leonid Slutsky of the nationalist LDPR and Vladislav Davankov of the New People, ostensibly a liberal, pro-business party.

Despite their vastly different political standings, all three broadly back the Kremlin’s policies – and none stands a chance against the incumbent.

Another hopeful – local Moscow councillor Boris Nadezhdin – announced his candidacy last year, generating a rare moment of optimism for opposition-minded voters.

He was a frequent guest on talk shows on state TV and had been relatively critical of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

But in a country where many have been jailed for speaking out against the war, he would never make the ballot paper.

Thousands queued up to offer signatures in his support, and perhaps spooked by the crowds, Russia’s election authorities rejected his bid, claiming that more than 15% of his collected signatures were flawed.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov Boris Nadezhdin, a representative of Civil Initiative political party, speaks to journalists after the Central Election Commission barred him from running in Russia’s 2024 presidential election, at the commission’s office in Moscow, Russia February 8, 2024.REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Boris Nadezhdin was barred from running more than a month before the election
Mr Nadezhdin’s exclusion from the race ended any possibility of a surprise.

Televised debates have taken place in the run-up to the vote, without Vladimir Putin taking part.

Instead, TV coverage has focused on his regular choreographed meetings with factory workers, soldiers and students while his state-of-the-nation address at the end of February was widely seen as a pre-election pitch aimed at burnishing his credentials as a man of the people.

Although some of the speech was devoted to the war in Ukraine, it was largely dedicated to domestic issues. Perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that many Russians are more concerned by problems closer to home than Russia’s supposed successes on the battlefield or its endless strife with the West.

Russia’s leader proposed a raft of social measures, including a modernised tax system that was “fairer” for Russian families and incentives aimed at increasing Russia’s dwindling birth rate.

The speech provided a glimpse into the many issues Russia is facing, including poverty affecting families and faltering education, infrastructure and healthcare.

For a man who has spent 20 years as president, Vladimir Putin has proven unable to solve many of these issues.

Instead, up to 40% of Russia’s budget in 2024 is being spent on the military and national security.

Many of his measures require considerable cash injections or investment, and Russia has a serious corruption problem that means funds often do not reach their intended destinations.

But that will hardly matter in an election that most international observers expect will be neither free nor fair.

In the absence of genuine enthusiasm for the vote, campaign videos from the poll’s also-rans have created a social media buzz, coming across as near-caricatures.

Communist hopeful Nikolai Kharitonov is portrayed angrily clenching his fist while listening to the latest news from volatile commodity markets. “We’ve toyed with capitalism and that’s enough!” he declares, marching across Red Square to take up residence in the Kremlin after his imagined election victory.

Of course, nothing of the sort will happen.

In another video, nationalist LDPR leader Leonid Slutsky is shown trying out the office of his late predecessor Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who led the party for 30 years until his death two years ago.

When an aide tries to switch name-plates on the desk, Mr Slutsky tells her forcefully: “No, leave it there!”

 

The only potential intrigue so far has come from an initiative from Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose death in prison last month she has blamed on “bloody mobster” Vladimir Putin.

She has urged supporters to swamp polling stations at midday on Sunday and vote for anyone but him. “We need to use election day to show that we exist and there are many of us,” she said in a video message.

 

But Ms Navalnaya herself has said that the purpose of the campaign is mostly to allow supporters to silently identify one another at the polling station, rather than to wield any real change.

On 18 March, Russians will doubtless wake up to find President Putin has been re-elected.

When he appears at a victory rally in Moscow, he may even shed a tear – as he did after the 2012 presidential election – and profusely thank voters for the trust they have placed in him.

For the next six years, the illusion of democracy is all but guaranteed to continue.

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