Could Putin lose? Everything you need to know about Russia’s presidential election

World

Russians are set to head to the polls for their country’s presidential election – with only one expected outcome.

With Alexei Navalny dead in unexplained circumstances and opposition candidate Boris Nadezhdin barred from running, there is nobody remaining to pose a serious obstacle to another six years of rule by Vladimir Putin.

Nonetheless, the election will be closely watched by those looking for insight into Russia’s political machinations, as well as opinions across wider Russian society.

So what should we expect from polling day in Russia, and what does it mean for the war in Ukraine?

Sky News takes a look at some of the key remaining questions.

When is the election?

Most voting takes place in Russia and in the annexed regions of Ukraine over three days between 15 and 17 March, though some regions vote in advance.

Russia is a huge country with 11 time zones and large expanses of sparsely populated and remote areas.

It’s so big that the electoral commission uses helicopters to access remote areas in Siberia to stage pop-up voting stations.

Image:
Vladimir Putin is expected to win another term. Pic: Reuters

An exit poll should be available in the hours after polls close, with official results posted a few days later.

It’s the first time multi-day voting has been used in a Russian presidential election, as well as the first allowing voters to cast ballots online.

Opposition groups in 2021 said digital votes in the country’s parliamentary elections showed signs of manipulation.

The vast majority of independent Russian media outlets have been banned and anyone found guilty of spreading what the government deems to be “deliberately false information” about the country’s invasion of Ukraine can be imprisoned for up to 15 years.

What happened in previous elections?

Presidential elections in Russia have followed a familiar pattern over the last 20 or so years.

In the 2018 presidential vote, the Communist party runner-up Pavel Grudinin secured 11.8% of the vote, compared to Mr Putin’s 76.7%.

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2018: CCTV shows alleged election violations in Russia

At the time, there were allegations of forced voting and election violations as footage released by a government opposition group appeared to show ballot boxes being stuffed.

Mr Putin previously won elections in 2012 (64.35% of the vote), 2004 (71.91%) and 2000 (53.44%).

Barred from seeking a third consecutive presidential term in 2008, he was appointed prime minister by Dmitry Medvedev.

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How has Putin been in power so long?

What are Russian election campaigns like?

Unlike in the UK, where the prime minister is chosen by their political party, the Russian president is elected by direct popular vote. If no candidate receives over 50% of the vote then a second round is held between the two most popular candidates three weeks later.

Registration of candidates generally wraps up by February of an election year, with campaigns run in February and March in the lead up to election day.

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Putin greeted by Russian grannies

Previous years have seen TV debates among some of those running for president. In one particularly lively debate in 2018, Ksenia Sobchak threw water over rival Vladimir Zhirinovsky who then responded furiously.

Mr Putin, who was not present for that debate and has ruled out appearing at any this year, has not been particularly busy on the campaign trail – perhaps given that his victory is assumed.

Who are the candidates this year?

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(L-R) Nikolai Kharitonov, Leonid Slutsky and Vladislav Davankov. Pic: AP

The frontrunner – by some distance – is 71-year-old incumbent Mr Putin, who has essentially been at the top of Russian politics since 1999.

In order to run again after so long in power, the Kremlin chief changed the constitution – he can seek two more terms after 2024.

He faces a trio of token contenders, none of whom has criticised him.

They include Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and Vladislav Davankov of the New People Party.

They broadly support the Kremlin and its policies, including the invasion of Ukraine. Previous elections have shown such candidates are unlikely to get enough votes to mount a real challenge.

Has Vladimir Putin planned a victory party?

Image:
Vladimir Putin delivers a rally speech in Manezhnaya Square, Moscow in 2018. Pic: 2018

There’s been no announcement of an event by Mr Putin’s team specifically to celebrate his expected election victory – that may not come until after the vote.

In 2018, he celebrated that win with his supporters in Moscow amid below-freezing temperatures in Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin, thanking them and joining in with their chants of “Russia!”.

However, it’s believed a rally is planned for 18 March to mark the 10th anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

What about Boris Nadezhdin?

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Boris Nadezhdin has called for a halt to the war in Ukraine. Pic: Reuters

Boris Nadezhdin is one of the highest profile anti-war figures remaining inside Russia, following the death of Mr Navalny.

After running an efficient campaign to gain the signatures required to stand in the election, he was barred from running by the country’s election commission.

Read more:
Navalny ally attacked with hammer outside his home
Poisonings and plane crashes – what’s happened to Putin’s most vocal critics

Mr Nadezhdin, 60, has called for a halt to the war in Ukraine and urged Russia to start a dialogue with the West.

On 4 March, he vowed to keep filing challenges against his exclusion from the vote, despite conceding that he has “zero” chance of appearing on the ballot.

He has used the protracted appeal process to portray himself as a fighter intent on playing a future role in Russia’s politics.

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Alexei Navalny, Russia’s highest profile opposition figure, died in prison in February. Pic: Reuters

What do the Russian elections mean for the war in Ukraine?

Many commentators, as well as Russia’s largely scattered opposition, describe the election as a referendum on the war in Ukraine.

Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst who used to be Mr Putin’s speechwriter, said the vote is one where “multiple choice is replaced with a simple, dichotomic one: “Are you for or against Putin?” and has said that it will be a “referendum on the issue of the war, and a vote for Putin will become a vote for the war”.

The opposition views the vote as an opportunity to demonstrate the scale of discontent with Mr Putin and the war.

Will there be protests?

Image:
People gather for the funeral of Alexei Navalny in Moscow. Pic: Reuters

It has become increasingly risky to demonstrate against the government in Russia in recent years, with those taking to the streets often arrested and imprisoned.

Shortly before his death, Mr Navalny called on voters to go to the polls at noon on 17 March and form long lines as a form of protest.

In response, the Kremlin warned there would be legal consequences for anyone who heeded the call.

Despite fears of arrest, tens of thousands of people gathered in Moscow for Mr Navalny’s funeral, with crowds clapping and chanting his name.

Thousands of people continued to lay flowers at his grave in the days since.

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