MOSCOW—There are seven candidates challenging Vladimir Putin in Russia’s elections on Sunday, and yet the atmosphere here is something less than suspenseful. The incumbent president, at age 65, has been in power since 2000, and there’s no doubt that he will remain there for another term. The chief unknown concerns how many will vote.
The Kremlin is hoping for, at a minimum, a 70 percent turnout, with Putin winning 70 percent of the votes—a possibility that is hardly unreasonable, with Putin’s popularity, according to reliable polls, standing at more than 80 percent. (The Kremlin’s control of the airwaves helps account for this.) A high turnout with overwhelming support for Putin will serve to legitimize his victory among friends and foes alike, even though the electoral process looks to many to have been rigged to exclude Putin’s chief potential competitor, the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. (Navalny was barred thanks to a conviction, and suspended prison sentence, for embezzlement on what appear to be trumped-up charges.) Navalny enjoys unquestionable, if still minority, backing, especially among the young, and has called for a boycott of the election.
Yet the show must go on. For the past few months, a series of debates, conducted on state television without Putin, the sole candidate who matters, has served to underscore little more than most of the contenders’ manifest unsuitability for the presidency—surely the intended result. (Putin has not taken part, adhering to Russian traditions by which the head of state remains aloof, tsarlike, above the fray.) Insults, deranged rants, and even fisticuffs have prevailed—without, of course, any candidate engaging in direct criticism of Putin. The opposition figure and journalist, Ksenia Sobchak, labeled (unjustly) by some in the Western press as “Russia’s Paris Hilton” for her stint on a reality TV show that ended six years ago, suffered especially brutal (and sexist) derision for her liberal views.