Russians are going to the polls Sunday for a presidential election that is certain to allow incumbent Vladimir Putin to retain his grip on power and the presidency. Putin has been in a position of leadership in Russia for 18 years.
He faces seven challengers but no real threats from any of the contenders. Each of the other candidates — a reality star and an ultranationalist among them — is expected to draw very few ballots. Putin is expected to bring in more than 50 percent of the vote, but his election team is hoping for 70 percent.
Sunday’s election spans 11 time zones, starting with the far east and ending with the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. Nearly 109 million people are registered to cast ballots. State-owned polling company VCIOM projects a turnout of 71 percent.
Yet, the Russian non-governmental research organization Levada Center conducted a survey in December that indicated 58 percent of voters planned to boycott the elections.
Putin’s closest rival was opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but he was disqualified from running in the election when he was convicted for embezzlement in December. Given a five-year suspended sentence, he says the conviction was politically motivated, to keep him out of the race.
Navalny is leading the boycott effort, while Russian election organizers are hoping for a high voter turnout to legitimize an election long seen to have a foregone conclusion.
In Crimea, the territory Russia says it has annexed from Ukraine, a few European politicians who are friendly with Putin are acting as election observers. The European Union and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have refused to send election monitors to Crimea, fearing it would be seen to legitimize the Russian occupation.
Opposition leader Navalny told VOA’s Russian service on Thursday that Putin’s observers in Crimea are political cronies, not objective observers. Among them are Andreas Mauere of the German far-left party Die Linke, and Hendrik Weber, founder of a Norwegian public organization called People Diplomacy Norway.
“All those so-called “European observers — they are as much observers as other candidates in these elections are ‘rivals’ to Putin,” Navalny told VOA. “Of course this is an absolute fake. It’s ridiculous and unpleasant to look at how Putin corrupted and turned into his puppets a significant part of the European establishment.”
Putin has been in power as either president or prime minister since 1999. He has switched back and forth between the two roles to circumvent a Russian law banning him from serving more than two consecutive terms as president.
Opinion polls show he has far more support than any of his rivals, who run the gamut from far-right populist to far-left communist. With another Putin win practically guaranteed, Navalny and other experts say Russian authorities could try to use inflated voter turnout numbers to prove the election was a success.
VOA Russian service contributed to this report.