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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Race Is On For the Kremlin

Last week's kickoff of the presidential race was a nonevent, perhaps because the March 14 vote itself is expected to be a nonevent.

While President Vladimir Putin's re-election to a second term is treated as a foregone conclusion, other dilemmas facing Putin are not: Should he run as the candidate from United Russia, the party to which he conspicuously lent his name during the Duma campaign? Or should he run as an independent, to cultivate the sense that he represents the whole country, not just one party, and can transcend ordinary politics?

Lilia Shevtsova, an expert on presidential politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said she expected Putin to choose the latter. "He wants to be the president of all Russia, to sit on all chairs, to be everyone's man," she said.

If Putin ran from United Russia, which Shevtsova said would be a dream scenario for the party, he would sail effortlessly onto the ballot.

United Russia, along with the three other parties that passed the 5 percent threshold in the Dec. 7 State Duma elections -- the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Rodina -- have the right to register their nominees without submitting voter signatures or a monetary deposit. Under a new law on presidential elections that went into effect in January, all they need to do is hold a party congress by the nomination deadline of Jan. 5, and put forward a candidate. (See box, Page 2.)

In terms of challengers, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has been a candidate in the last two presidential elections, in 1996 and 2000, and is widely expected to run again. Gennady Semigin, a young rival of Zyuganov's within the party, has indicated he also will seek the nomination.

Zyuganov's representative, just like those for Rodina co-leader Sergei Glazyev, and LDPR's Vladimir Zhirinovsky could not confirm whether they intended to run, saying the question of their candidacies will be decided by party congresses next week.

One candidate -- coffin magnate German Sterligov, who most recently ran for Moscow mayor -- announced he would run late Tuesday. But no one else, not even Putin, has formally thrown his hat in.

For now, then, the race remains an electoral contest without contestants, though that could soon change. Shevtsova said she would not be surprised if Putin announced his candidacy on Thursday, during his televised annual question-and-answer session with the nation.

Whether there will be a democratic candidate in the race is still an open question, since parties outside the Duma have less than a month after they name a candidate to gather 2 million supporting signatures. The deadline for submitting them is Jan. 28.

This complicates matters for Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, which are still struggling to agree on whether to consolidate their efforts behind a single presidential candidate as a way to rehabilitate the democratic movement after their stinging Duma elections defeat. (See story, Page 3.)

Candidates running independently from any party -- whether Putin or a democratic contender -- must collect 2 million signatures, but even before that, by Dec. 31, register a group of at least 500 people, effectively a substitute for a party, who back their bids.

Party leaders note that about 5 million people voted for Yabloko and SPS on Dec. 7 and that's only about half of the liberal-minded electorate.

The fact remains, however, that gathering 2 million signatures so quickly remains a Herculean task, especially since no more than 50,000 can come from each of the country's 89 regions.

Igor Mintusov, chairman of political consulting agency Nikkolo M, told Vedomosti that an army of some 10,000 foot soldiers fanned out across the country would be needed to collect about 150,000 signatures a day.

Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies said this is a feat Yabloko and SPS could pull off, though "no one prepared for this." Because everyone counted on the waiver for Duma parties, they now must scramble to organize the mass signature drive, something normally planned months ahead of time.

In the haste, Makarkin said, "It's believable that there may be serious mistakes."

Shevtsova said candidates can insure themselves against uncertifiable signatures simply by collecting twice as many signatures as needed: With 4 million signatures, 2 million will be approved, and the candidate won't be disqualified. Using the estimate that one signature costs $1, she said, "It's simply a question of raising $4 million."

Rumors swirled this fall that deposed Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky might be planning a run for the presidency from jail. Even with his vast fortune, Khodorkovsky would have difficulty finding 2 million signatures, Makarkin said. "It would be very complicated," he said.

The Central Elections Commission also verifies candidates' finances, poring over bank accounts and property declarations. Unlike the 5,000 Duma aspirants, however, presidential hopefuls must itemize their spouses' wealth as well.

The commission, therefore, gets to play a key role in deciding which candidates ultimately appear on the ballot, since few registration documents are devoid of irregularities.

"Everyone breaks the law, everyone allows some mistakes," Makarkin said, so it's a question of whose mistakes the commission chooses to catch.

Putin's approval ratings remain stratospheric, with 78 percent saying they trust him fully and 13 percent saying they mostly do, according to the most recent survey by the independent polling agency VTsIOM-A, in November.

However, if Putin's challengers can split more than half of the vote, depriving him of a majority, Putin would be forced into a run-off in April and, Shevtsova said, "his legitimacy would suffer."

Putin's campaign chairman, Dmitry Kozak, the first deputy head of Putin's Kremlin administration, is in charge of making sure that doesn't happen. His task is to make the campaign interesting enough that turnout surpasses the 50 percent needed for the election to stand, without allowing an alternative candidate to run a strong campaign that would establish himself as a serious contender in 2008.

Putin will require that the strategies used for achieving re-election be above board, and vote rigging is out of the question, Shevtsova said.

"He wants the elections to be civilized," she said. "His image in the West is very important, and he doesn't want any of the unpleasantness that happened with the parliamentary elections."

Campaign Calendar



Dec. 11 A Federation Council declaration in Rossiiskaya Gazeta kicks off the three-month, three-day race for the presidency. A candidate must be a Russian citizen, no younger than 35, with at least 10 years in residence in the country.

Dec. 31 Last day for candidates running without a party to present lists of at least 500 citizens who back his or her candidacy.

Jan. 5 Last day a party congress can nominate a candidate.

Jan. 28 Last day to submit registration documents. For all but the four Duma parties' nominees, this includes 2 million signatures.

Jan 29-Feb 18 Voters who will be away from their permanent residence on election day can request absentee ballots.

Feb. 7 Deadline for the Central Elections Commission to approve a candidates' registration. (If only one candidate is registered at that point, elections will be postponed 60 days so other candidates can be put forward.)

By Feb. 10 Central Elections Commission lottery for airtime and print space for candidates' campaign material in state-controlled media.

Feb. 13-March 12 Official campaign season, when media campaigning is allowed.

Feb. 28 Early voting begins at polar stations and other isolated locations.

March 8 Last day when a candidate can be removed from the ballot at the request of a court, a party or the candidate.

March 9-14 Embargo on any publication of opinion polls or other vote forecast in place until the last polls close on election day, at 9 p.m. Moscow time.

March 14 Polling stations are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

March 15 Central Elections Commission releases preliminary results.

By March 26 Official results published.

April 4 A run-off election to be held in the event that no single candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, or if less than 50 percent of registered voters turn out.

May 7 New presidential term officially begins.

Sources: Central Elections Commission, Kommersant