Russian lawmakers approve March election, paving way for a 5th Putin term

Russian lawmakers on Thursday set the date of the country’s 2024 presidential election for March 17, moving Vladimir Putin a step closer to a fifth term in office.

Members of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, voted unanimously to approve a decree setting the date.

“In essence, this decision marks the start of the election campaign,” said Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council. Russia’s central election commission is to hold a meeting on the presidential campaign on Friday.

Putin, 71, hasn’t yet announced his intention to run again, but is widely expected to do so in the coming days now that the date has been set.

Under constitutional reforms he orchestrated, he is eligible to seek two more six-year terms after his current one expires next year, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2036.

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Election opponents unclear

Having established tight control over Russia’s political system, Putin’s victory in the March election is all but assured. Prominent critics who could challenge him on the ballot are either in jail or living abroad, and most independent media have been banned.

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Neither the costly, drawn-out war in Ukraine, nor a failed rebellion last summer by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, appear to have affected his high approval ratings reported by independent pollsters.

A tank is loaded onto an trailer.
Members of the Wagner Group mercenary company load their tank onto a truck on a street in Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. The failed rebellion, launched by the late mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, does not appear to have affected Putin’s high approval ratings. (The Associated Press)

Who would challenge him on the ballot remains unclear. Two people have announced plans to run: former lawmaker Boris Nadezhdin, who holds a seat on a municipal council in the Moscow region, and Yekaterina Duntsova, a journalist and lawyer from the Tver region north of Moscow, who once was a member of a local legislature.

For both, getting on the ballot could be an uphill battle. Unless one of five political parties that have seats in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, nominates them as their candidate, they would have to gather tens of thousands of signatures across multiple regions.

According to Russian election laws, candidates put forward by a party that is not represented in the State Duma or in at least a third of regional legislatures have to submit at least 100,000 signatures from 40 or more regions. Those running independently of any party would need a minimum of 300,000 signatures from 40 regions or more.

‘Happy New Year’ billboards taken down

Alexei Navalny, 47, who is Putin’s biggest political opponent, is currently serving a jail term of more than 30 years for convictions on extremism and other charges that his supporters characterize as politically motivated.

The Anti-Corruption Foundation founded by Navalny recently paid for billboards in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities that said “Russia” and “Happy New Year.” But a website address and QR code printed on the signs led to a site titled “Russia without Putin.”

A billboard with Russian characters is shown.
A traffic police officer takes a photo of a billboard with the words Happy New Year and a QR code in Moscow on Thursday. The billboard, pulled down not long after the photo was taken, directed Russians to an anti-Putin website. (The Associated Press)

There, voters were encouraged to oppose Putin on March 17. The website says the election is important for Putin as a referendum on whether Russians approve of his war in Ukraine, rather than a real contest for the presidency.

Ivan Zhdanov, the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s director, told The Associated Press that the billboards had been up for two days and it seems unlikely the agency that put them up checked the contents of the website ahead of time.

Journalists for the Associated Press saw several of them were swiftly removed Thursday.

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Putin ran as an independent in 2018 and his campaign gathered the necessary signatures. In 2012, the Kremlin’s United Russia party nominated him, so he didn’t need them.

The central election commission plans online voting in addition to traditional paper ballots in about 30 Russian regions and is considering stretching the voting across three days — a practice that was adopted during the pandemic and widely criticized by independent election monitors.

Role of observers limited

Those measures on top of restrictions on monitoring adopted in recent years will severely limit the possibility of independent observers, according to Stanislav Adnreychuk, co-chair of Golos, a prominent independent election monitoring group.

Andreychuk told The Associated Press that only registered candidates or state-backed advisory bodies, the Civic Chambers, can assign observers to polling stations, decreasing the likelihood of truly independent watchdogs. There is very little transparency with online voting, and if the balloting lasts for three days, it will be incredibly hard to cover nearly 100,000 polling stations in the country — not to mention ensuring that ballots aren’t tampered with at night, he said.

“Regular monitoring [at the polls] poses the biggest problem at this point,” Andreychuk said.

“But we will be working in any case” he said of Golos’ plans, adding that they will conduct monitoring throughout the campaign and support activists who get to polling stations on election day. 

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