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Hope For A Time After Putin: Russia's Upcoming Presidential 'Elections'

Vladimir Putin has, unsurprisingly, confirmed that he will be running for his fifth presidential term in 2024. The news was expected following the changes made to the Russian constitution in 2020, which accommodate Putin's desire to remain in office indefinitely. 

The announcement came on the 8th of December at a ceremony honouring participants in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict. In many ways, the timing further synonymises Putin's rule with Russkiy Mir - an ideology which promotes the idea of a multi-ethnic Russian-speaking culture which transcends Russia's borders. The Russkiy Mir perspective often justifies Russian expansionism. Putin's choice to associate his presidential campaign with the current war indicates that he plans to maintain a narrative that the invasion of Ukraine is a necessity and will continue his aggressive foreign policy.

Before delving into Putin's presidential campaign, it is essential first to understand how elections work in Russia more broadly. However, political scientists have long debated the intricacies of the current Russian electoral system's true nature. 

The extent of Putin's power has been questioned at various points since 2000. It is far too simplistic to minimise the complexity of Rissia's political system to simply being a "one-man show". Nonetheless, most agree that Russia has become an authoritarian regime without free and fair elections. Much of the competition in the upcoming elections will be Kremlin-approved, and the elections will only strengthen the democratic façade whilst restricting any real challenge to Putin's rule. 

Regardless, let's look at the other candidates in more detail to discern whether there is any likelihood that the elections in Russia could go a different way this time around. It seems unlikely. 

At this point, most experts recognise that the current autocracy is far too established for any of the other candidates to be a genuine threat to Putin. However, some candidates might genuinely be in the running against him and do not seem to be part of the Kremlin-approved faux competition. These candidates are Boris Nadezhdin, Yekaterina Duntsova and pro-war Igor Girkin. However, since Girkin is currently awaiting trial, he is unlikely to become a contender. Nadezhdin was bold in his criticism of Putin on a Russian state-run TV channel earlier this year and Duntsova has been adamant in her struggle for a more democratic and just Russia. 

Neither candidate may be able to stand in the upcoming elections because of the restrictive policies in place for independent candidates. Russian law requires both Nadezhdin and Duntsova to collect 300,000 signatures before they can formally be in the running. Some also speculate that because these are two less-prominent political figures, both Nadezhdin and Duntsova are pawns in the carefully choreographed ballet that is the Russian elections. These critics believe that their campaigns and opposition are designed to feign democracy. 

Nonetheless, I think they're both sincere. However, they will, of course, struggle to gain votes against Putin. Perhaps then, the elections will teach us something about the current political atmosphere in the country. 

Putin's grip goes beyond rigged elections. Years of censorship, limited information and constructed narratives have made Putin popular. It is also essential to recognise that some Russians would support Putin and what he stands for, even without the Kremlin's countless efforts to strengthen their control over the country. There are also many who, understandably, fear showing their support for other candidates. Furthermore, it would take a far more prominent political figure, an Alexei Navalny, if you will, for there to be a significant change in Russia.

This November, the Levada Center, a prominent Russian NGO, found that Putin had an 85% approval rating. Whilst the accuracy of these findings is highly questionable, this most recent poll indicates that Putin's control over Russia's citizens remains strong. So, what is there really to say about the upcoming elections?

Well, the Navalny camp is encouraging people to vote for anybody but Putin in a bid to demonstrate public disapproval of the regime. They are aware that it is almost certain that Putin will be inaugurated as president for the fifth time next May, but are determined to disturb the election process as much as possible to expose Putin's weaknesses. Their vision is inspiring and hopeful. Even in an autocratic Russia, voting remains an important mode of defiance and expression of choice. 

It is unlikely that anyone other than Putin will prevail in a system crafted for over two decades to uphold his power. However, that is not to say that change cannot be made, even if it is small and gradual. It will be interesting to observe the election campaigns and upcoming elections in Russia to further our understanding of the Russian political system and ascertain whether there is room for any change. There is hope for Russia yet, for a time after Putin.

Image: Sputnik/via The Associated Press

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