Who’s who in Russia’s presidential election

In Depth: can any of the seven rival candidates unseat Putin?

President Putin faces challenges from former strawberry farmer Pavel Grudinin (left) and TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak (right)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Russian presidential election takes place next month but the outcome is already as good as certain, with Vladimir Putin expected to retain the top spot.

“Nobody can remotely consider Russia’s presidential election to be democratic, whatever Putin and his defenders might say,” says The Interpreter, the website of Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank.

Although the 65-year-old strongman will not run unapposed, his greatest rival has been prevented from standing. The other candidates are mainly “viewed as a Kremlin ploy to boost voter participation”, reports news website Voice of America.

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The Financial Times says that Putin has struggled with a campaign “beset by a lack of competition”, and that “the threat of a low turnout from disgruntled voters turned off by the lack of choice” may damage his reputation.

How do Russian elections work?

The presidential election takes place on 18 March, with the electorate voting directly for their chosen candidates. If no candidate achieves an absolute majority, a second round will be held on 8 April. Putin has never failed to secure a majority, having run in the 2000, 2004 and 2012 elections.

Are Russian elections free and fair?

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) accused the Putin regime of electoral fraud following the 2012 election, saying: “The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia. There was no real competition and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt.”

Who are the 2018 candidates?

There are seven candidates running against Putin for president, reports Russian news agency RIA Novosti. They include Sergey Baburin of the Russian All-People’s Union; Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party; Maxim Suraykin of the Communists of Russia; Boris Titov of the Party of Growth; and Grigory Yavlinsky of the social-liberal Yabloko party. The final, and most high-profile, challengers are TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak and strawberry tycoon Pavel Grudinin.

In January, the Financial Times reported that 7.6% of the electorate intended to vote for Grudinin, making him the leading candidate to challenge Putin. But the winner when it comes to media attention is undoubtedly talk show host Sobchak, who has been described as the Russian version of US socialite Paris Hilton.

Sobchak “is both loved and loathed”, says Associated Press. Her campaign slogan, “Sobchak against all”, positions her as the candidate of choice for voters tired of the same old line-up of politicians who repeatedly run against Putin, and lose.

Some speculate that Sobchak’s participation in the election is merely a ploy to boost voter turnout. However, in an article published in October, Euronews argued that her campaign may have been orchestrated by the Kremlin in order to split opposition voters and thereby destroy the hopes of anti-corruption candidate Alexei Navalny, who had intended to run as Russia’s highest-profile Putin critic.

The Alexei Navalny problem

Is Putin afraid of “real competition”? Anti-corruption campaigner Navalny, 41, told CNN last month that the Russian president “only allows those to run who don’t even resist, who don’t even campaign”.

After being convicted of embezzlement last year, Navalny was barred in December from running against Putin in the election, in accordance with Russian law. His supporters say the case against Navalny was politically motivated and that he could have received special compensation to run for office. The Kremlin calls Navalny a dangerous influence, and claims his protest calls risk causing chaos.

What will the election result mean?

Will the election bring change to a country ruled by a strongman for almost two decades? It is unlikely.

“There’s no suspense in the air,” says German newspaper Deutsche Welle. “Regarding the outcome of the Russian presidential election in March 2018, opinions are undivided despite the fact the campaign has only just begun... Only Vladimir Putin will prevail.”

Navalny has called for a boycott in a bid to further reduce voter turnout and deprive Putin’s regime of legitimacy, the Radio Free Europe website reports.

Only half of all eligible voters are expected to cast ballots on 18 March, well below the 65% who voted in the last election. The Independent says Putin and his team may be left fighting his only real “election rival - low turnout”.

However, the newspaper adds, with voters allegedly likely to be offered “all kinds of discounts, lotteries, funfairs and cut-price sausage promotions at the polls”, the voter turnout is hard to predict.

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