On Monday, Russia's Central Election Commission voted unanimously to bar opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running for president in the March 18 election, clearing Russian President Vladimir Putin of any significant rivals in his bid for a fourth term. Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, would have needed special permission to run because he was convicted of fraud, in a case widely seen as political retribution for opposing Putin and highlighting corruption in his government.
After the decision, Navalny called on his supporters to boycott the election. "The procedure that we're invited to take part is not an election," he said in a prerecorded message. "Only Putin and the candidates he has hand-picked are taking part in it," and "going to the polls right now is to vote for lies and corruption." Putin was widely expected to win, with approval ratings above 80 percent, but the Kremlin is worried that voter apathy and low turnout will undermine his victory.
Putin will face other candidates — election regulars Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal, and the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, plus Communist nominee Pavel Grudinin and TV host Ksenia Sobchak — in March. Sobchak, 36, criticized Navalny's boycott call, saying that elections are "the only way to change something, and boycotting them is inefficient and harmful."