Tense election week as Kremlin mulls anti-war presidential candidate’s application

Tense election week as Kremlin mulls anti-war presidential candidate’s application
Boris Nadezhdin, the only openly anti-war candidate in Russia's presidential election, has submitted his paperwork to run and now the Kremlin has to decide if it will allow him to compete. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 5, 2024

It is a tense week for Russia’s presidential elections as the Kremlin mulls over a decision on allowing the surprise star of the show Boris Nadezhdin application to run in the race, the only candidate to openly oppose the war in Ukraine.

A long-time politician, who has worked in the second tier of Russian domestic politics for decades, Nadezhdin suddenly sprang to prominence after taking a strong stance against the war in Ukraine that resonated with regular Russians that came out in droves to sign his petition. Appropriately enough, Nadezhdin name is a derivative of the Russian word for “hope.”

Russian rules require a candidate to produce at least 100,000 qualified signatures to be admitted to the race. These signatures are then checked for authenticity by the Central Election Committee (CEC). A favourite tactic is to disqualify enough signatures so the total falls below the 100,000 benchmark and disqualifies the application. The Belarusian authorities used the same tactic to disqualify several opposition leaders from the presidential elections in August 2020 that resulted in mass demonstrations.

The CEC stopped accepting signatures in support of presidential candidates on January 31. One day prior, Nadezhdin submitted more than 100,000 signatures to the committee, which is due to announce its decision on his eligibility this week.

The CEC formally registered incumbent head of state Vladimir Putin as a self-nominated presidential candidate to be on the ballot in the upcoming election on March 15-17.

"[The decision] has been adopted unanimously," CEC Chairperson Ella Pamfilova announced, TASS reported on January 29.

CEC Secretary Natalya Budarina, in turn, confirmed that, as required by law, 60,000 voter signatures had been randomly selected for verification out of the 315,000 signatures gathered in support of Putin. "As a result of the verification, 91 signatures of the 60,000 were declared invalid due to incorrect information about voters. The 91 invalid signatures make up 0.15% of the verified ones," she pointed out.

Putin is the fourth presidential candidate to be registered by the CEC. Earlier, the federal election authority registered candidates from three parliamentary parties: Leonid Slutsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladislav Davankov of New People, and Nikolay Kharitonov of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).

According to his campaign website, Nadezhdin collected at least twice the required amount of signatures, but he chose not to submit those collected beyond Russia’s borders as too easy to disqualify.

Along with Nadezhdin, Sergey Baburin (a relatively unknown candidate of the “Russian All-People’s Union”) presented his supporters’ signatures, but then withdrew from the election in support of Putin. Irina Sviridova, another candidate, did the same, claiming that she had failed to collect the necessary number of signatures, BMB Russia reports.

While it is widely believed that Nadezhdin’s candidateship is a Kremlin-backed technical project designed to give the election some legitimacy, more recently several analysts have said that if that was the intention then “the project has long since gone completely off the rails.”

The Kremlin has gone out of its way to vet and position potential candidates to breathe enough life into the elections so that people turn out to vote, but not enough so there is any real race. For example, no one under 50 years old was allowed to run in an effort to prevent Putin, who is approaching 70, from looking too old.

Nadezhdin’s stance on the war in Russia, and the obvious resonance that has with voters, was unintended and the last thing the Kremlin wants is to turn the presidential race into a de facto referendum on the war. But that is what is starting to happen and why Nadezhdin’s candidacy has become so controversial.

The irony of the election is that Putin would win easily even if the vote was free and fair. He remains genuinely popular as he is widely credited with bring stability to Russia following the chaos of the Yeltsin years and has not only overseen an economic boom that saw Russia’s economy more than double in size, but also restored some of the geopolitical clout that the fallen Soviet Union lost after its collapse; the loss of the USSR’s superpower status was deeply humiliating for most Russians.

More specifically, the majority of Russians support Putin’s war in Ukraine, but take the line that starting the war was a stupid idea, but now they are fighting against Nato (as most Russians see it) they don’t want Russia to lose.

In the most recently state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) poll, "As many as 78.9% of the survey participants responded affirmatively when asked if they trusted Putin (a 1.4 p.p. dip), while approval of the president’s job performance went down by 1.3 p.p. to 76.2%," VCIOM said in a statement presenting the survey findings.

It remains to be seen what the CEC will decide. There are already reports in Russian media that Nadezhdin’s list contains some “dead souls”, signatures of people that have already died. As CEC rules limit the number of names a candidate can submit to 105,000 – even if they collect more names than that – the CEC only needs to disqualify 5% of the total for the application to fail.

A survey conducted by the Russian Field polling agency found that Nadezhdin is currently the second most popular presidential candidate, BMB Russia reports. Among Russians who say they will definitely vote in the election, 10.4% say they will support Nadezhdin and 79.2% say they will vote for Putin.

Nadezhdin also has more support than the already-registered Communist candidate Nikolay Kharitonov, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party Leonid Slutsky, and the candidate of the New People party Vladislav Davankov combined, at least according to this survey. The survey also found that 16% of voters will boycott the election.

“Political decision-makers in the Kremlin will likely spend the next week calculating the risks of letting Nadezhdin run for office in March versus the risks of disqualifying him,” BMB Russia reports. “There are arguments for allowing an openly anti-war candidate on the ballot. For example, it would allow the authorities to showcase, using their vast toolbox of propaganda and repression, how little support such a position enjoys in Russia, all while keeping turnout as high as possible. However, if Nadezhdin enjoys an uncomfortable lead over his rivals from the “systemic” opposition and he could become a beacon for disgruntled voters, the Kremlin may simply deem such an experiment too risky and engineering the desired election results too resource-intensive.”

If Nadezhdin campaign is judged too risky he will either be denied registration or face a concerted effort to delegitimize his participation later in the campaign.

The decision will also depend on how the Kremlin’s curators of domestic policy assess the risk of protests if Nadezhdin is removed from the election. The candidate himself promised protests “within the limits allowed by law” if he was removed.