Russia has fired the starting gun on a presidential election next year, giving Vladimir Putin the chance at an unprecedented run of power.
Lawmakers in Russia's Federation Council voted unanimously on Thursday to hold a presidential election between 15-17 March next year. "In essence, this decision marks the start of the election campaign," said the chamber's speaker Valentina Matviyenko.
The Russian president confirmed on Friday that he would run for re-election. The announcement followed "months of speculation" over whether the 71-year-old, who has been in power as either prime minister or president since 1999, would seek another term after constitutional amendments in 2020 that "reset his term count", said The Moscow Times.
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Putin is now eligible to seek two more six-year terms after his term expires next year, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2036 – by which point he would have surpassed Joseph Stalin's 29 years to make him Russia's longest-serving leader.
Will Putin win?
The election will be "a formality" for Putin, said Sky News, as he is supported by the state and state media, and faces almost no mainstream public dissent.
Neither the "costly, drawn-out war in Ukraine" nor the failed Wagner uprising last summer appear to have affected Putin's "high approval ratings reported by independent pollsters", said The Associated Press.
The "tight control" he has established over the political system during his 24-year reign – and the fact that critics who might challenge him are either in jail or abroad – makes his re-election in March "all but assured".
"This electoral ritual… has a big significance for Putin and his team," Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst and professor at the Free University in Riga, Latvia, told the news agency. "It is important because it measures the loyalty of regional elites and (indicates) that the system works."
Although there is "little doubt" about the election's outcome, said The New York Times, the vote "carries more significance" as it is the first presidential election since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine – perhaps "the most consequential decision" he had taken in 23 years of power. So far, the grim war "has not featured heavily" in his public appearances, which observers told the paper is "intentional".
The president "views this election as a referendum on approval of his actions", jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny said in a statement posted online this week: "a referendum on approval of the war".
Putin is "essentially competing with himself – with the younger Putin", Nikolay Petrov, an analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told the NYT. "It is important for him to show that he is not in a worse place than he was 25 years ago."
Who might challenge him?
No "serious challenger has emerged so far", said Radio Free Europe. Two of the country's "best-known opposition voices", Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, are serving lengthy prison sentences that supporters say are politically motivated.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov is expected to be on the ballot. Former lawmaker and municipal councillor in the Moscow region, Boris Nadezhdin, has said he will run, as has Yekaterina Duntsova, a journalist and lawyer from the Tver region.
But to get on the ballot, they will have to be nominated by one of the five parties in the Duma, or gather tens of thousands of signatures. That would be an "uphill battle", said the AP news agency.
Putin is due to hold an end-of-year press conference next week: the first such conference since he ordered Russian troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
However sure the election outcome seems, Putin is "not invulnerable by any means", said Thomas E. Graham, on the Council on Foreign Relations. But "removing him without bringing down the whole system could require a finely tuned conspiracy among those that control real levers of power, a daunting task in a low-trust society such as Russia's at a time of mounting political repression".
But it is not impossible, wrote Graham, co-founder of Yale University's Russian, East European and Eurasian study programme. Pressure to remove Putin will grow "if he proves to be incapable of effectively performing the leader's three primary functions in Russia's elite-based political system: to protect the elites from external foes, from the Russian people, and from one another."
Dmitry Medvedev, former prime minister and now deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, escalated his recent fiery rhetoric against the West today, conjuring the spectre of a common enemy. He posted on Telegram: "Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis has the threat of a direct clash between Russia and Nato that could lead to a Third World War been so real."
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