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March 3, 2024

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Putin moves a step closer to a fifth term as president after Russia sets 2024 election date

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Lawmakers in Russia set 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,” Valentina Matviyenko, the chamber’s speaker, said.

Putin, 71, hasn’t yet announced his intention to run again, but he is widely expected to do so soon now that election day is scheduled. Russia’s Central Election Commission plans to hold a meeting Friday on the presidential campaign.

Asked whether Putin had decided to seek reelection, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged reporters to “be patient.”

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

The tight control over Russia’s political system that he has established during more than 20 years in power makes his reelection in March 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.

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.

Who would run against Putin next year remains unclear. Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged his supporters in an online statement Thursday to vote for anyone but Putin.

“Putin views this election as a referendum on approval of his actions. A referendum on approval of the war. Let’s disrupt his plans and make it happen so that no one on March 17 is interested in the rigged result, but that all of Russia saw and understood: the will of the majority is that Putin must leave,” the statement said.

Members of Navalny’s team said Thursday that they placed a number of billboards up in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities reading “Russia” and “Happy New Year,” with links and QR codes leading to the website of their campaign against the Russian president, titled “Russia without Putin.”

The Associated Press found that some of the billboards already had been taken down.

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.

Allies of Igor Strelkov, a jailed hard-line nationalist who accused Putin of weakness and indecision in Ukraine, have cited his ambitions to run as well, but extremism charges levied against him by the Russian authorities render his candidacy unlikely.

Strelkov, a retired security officer who led Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and was convicted of murder in the Netherlands for his role in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that year, has criticized Putin as a “nonentity” and a person of “cowardly mediocrity.”

Strelkov was arrested in July and has remained behind bars ever since. He is facing five years in prison if convicted.

For Nadezhdin and Duntsova, 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.

Those requirements apply to Putin as well, who has used different tactics over the years. He ran as an independent in 2018 and his campaign gathered signatures. In 2012, he ran as a nominee of the Kremlin’s United Russia party, so there was no need to gather signatures.

At least one party — A Just Russia, which has 27 seats in the 450-seat State Duma — is willing to nominate Putin as its candidate this year. The Interfax news agency quoted the party’s leader, veteran lawmaker and staunch Putin supporter Sergei Mironov, as saying Thursday that A Just Russia would nominate Putin at a Dec. 23 congress even if the president decides to run as an independent.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Kremlin agreed to those plans. The party’s press service told the AP it was the party’s initiative, and the Kremlin did not immediately comment on it.

Running as an independent is more likely for Putin, said independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “It will be too much honor for a party, he values himself highly. Therefore, I think he will run as an independent candidate, and will probably collect signatures. This will be a good pretext to promote the campaign in the regions.”

Oreshkin, a professor at the Free University in Riga, Latvia, expects Putin and several other significantly less popular candidates to be on the ballot, such as Nadezhdin or longtime Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

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.

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.

Analyst Oreshkin said the vote will be more of a “ritual” than a competitive electoral process.

“This electoral ritual, electoral rite has a big significance for Putin and his team. It is important because it measures the loyalty of regional elites and (indicates) that the system works,” he said.

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