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Vladimir Putin at a rally at Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin on March 18, 2018.

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

There are no surprises over who will win Russia’s presidential election this coming weekend with incumbent, Vladimir Putin, set to win a fifth term in office, keeping him in power until at least 2030.

The heavily stage-managed vote taking place from Friday to Sunday is not expected to throw up any nasty surprises for the Kremlin which told CNBC months ago that it was confident Putin would win the vote comfortably.

That’s particularly the case in a country where Russian opposition figures are not represented on the ballot paper or in mainstream politics, with most activists having fled the country. Those that have stayed have found themselves arrested or imprisoned or have died in mysterious circumstances, as was the case with jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The Kremlin denied it had any hand in his death.

In the 2024 election, there’s no doubt who will win the vote; Putin’s name is on the ballot paper along with only three other candidates who are part of Russia’s “systemic opposition”: Vladislav Davankov of the New People party, Leonid Slutsky from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and Communist Party candidate Nikolay Kharitonov.

Seen as token political opponents whose parties are generally supportive of the government, their inclusion on the ballot paper is designed to lend a degree of respectability to the vote, and a semblance of plurality to Russia’s effectively autocratic political system.

Putin has been in power either as president or prime minister since late 1999 and shows no sign of being ready to relinquish control of the country. He’s backed by a loyal inner circle and retains the support of Russia’s security services.

Reflecting the Kremlin’s nervousness over any potential for an electoral upset, however, even candidates who were only marginally representative of the “non-systemic opposition,” such as anti-war hopefuls Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, were barred from participating in the election by Russia’s Central Election Commission. The ban was widely seen as politically-motivated.

Looking for a landslide

Over 110 million Russian citizens are eligible to vote in the election, as well as an estimated 6 million people living in four partially Russian-occupied territories in the south and east of Ukraine, much to Kyiv’s disdain.

Putin’s approval rating in Russia stands at the highest level since 2016, at 86% in February, according to the independent Levada Center, although analysts like Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, note that Putin’s “power model” is heavily reliant on two unstable mainstays: “passive conformism and fear.”

Both factors have certainly been amplified since Russia invaded its neighbor Ukraine in February 2022, with any perceived criticism of Russia’s “special military operation” — portrayed as a glorious and patriotic defense of Russia’s homeland — potentially landing citizens in jail. That 315,000 Russian soldiers are estimated to have been wounded or killed in the conflict is not a subject the Kremlin will go near in public; Russia does not release death or casualty figures.

Ukrainian soldiers fire with D-30 artillery at Russian positions in the direction of Klishchiivka as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 12, 2023. 

Diego Herrera Carcedo | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The Kremlin will be hoping to see high voter turnout this election — the first time a presidential vote has been held over three days — and is looking for a momentous win for Putin in order to legitimize the war, analysts note.

“The Kremlin seeks an election result that would demonstrate overwhelming public support for Putin and, by extension, his domestic and foreign policy agenda,” Andreas Tursa, central and eastern Europe advisor at consultancy Teneo, commented Thursday.

“The Kremlin is using the electoral contest to reaffirm Putin’s legitimacy, mobilize public support for his policies, and showcase unity and determination to its external adversaries,” he added, with the Kremlin looking for a “landslide victory.”

“According to official data, Putin received 77.5% of valid votes in the 2018 presidential election that saw a turnout of 67.5%. This year, both figures could be even higher,” he said.

“Putin does not face any real competition in the vote and, if needed, electoral authorities have various tools at their disposal to engineer the desired turnout and result. However, the preference is to generate the result with as little interference as possible,” he noted.

Widespread criticism

Rising authoritarianism in Russia, and the erosion of the last vestiges of democracy in the country during Putin’s tenure, have provoked widespread criticism and consternation. As such, it’s no wonder that the 2024 vote has already been condemned by opposition activists, as well as neighboring Ukraine.

Kyiv has been scathing about voting taking place in Crimea, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk this week. There have already been reports of coercion and illegitimate voting practices including evidence of armed soldiers accompanying pro-Russian officials, holding ballot boxes, as they go door-to-door to gather votes.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday that Russia’s attempt to “imitate” presidential elections on its territory “demonstrates the Russian Federation’s continued flagrant disregard for international law norms and principles.” It called the votes illegal and urged citizens in occupied regions not to participate.

Russian opposition activists, most in self-imposed exile in order to evade arrest, imprisonment or attack, have also condemned the election.

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, pleaded with Russian voters to vote for “any candidate except Putin” and called on citizens to vote en masse at midday local time on March 17, with the intention of overwhelming polling stations. She also asked the West to not recognize the election result. Kremlin opponents have also called on supporters abroad to protest outside Russian embassies this coming Sunday.

Dmitrii Moskovii, an opposition activist and representative of the Russian Democratic Society in London, said the protests offered people a chance to show their opposition to Putin and the war.

When we’re talking about Russia, we’re always talking about an almost authoritarian regime in which there is no freedom of election, we’re talking about an election that is obviously and for sure going to be faked by the Russian authorities,” he told CNBC Thursday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a meeting with participants of the International Youth Festival, March 6, 2024 in Sirius territory, Sochi, Russia. Putin is visiting the Stavropolsky Krai and Krasnodar Krai regions in the southern part of the country ahead of the presidential elections scheduled March 15-17. 

Contributor | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The semblance of free and fair elections appears to be something the Kremlin is little concerned about, with analysts noting that the 2024 vote is taking place with far less scrutiny than previous ballots, reflecting Russia’s increasingly indifferent attitude toward international democratic norms.

“Recent changes to Russia’s electoral laws make it virtually impossible to conduct any meaningful monitoring, and have significantly restricted the role of the media,” Anna Caprile, a policy analyst with the European Parliament, said in analysis Wednesday.

“The reappointment of Vladimir Putin seems inexorable. The objective of the Kremlin, however, is not just victory, but a landslide result, both in turnout and percentage of votes. This would legitimise Putin’s legacy and his war of aggression, relegating the remaining opposition to an even more marginalised role, and allowing Putin to implement, unchecked, his vision for the next six years,” she noted.

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