TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Russian election authorities on Thursday rejected the candidacy of anti-war politician Boris Nadezhdin in next month's presidential election, a strong signal from the Kremlin that it will not tolerate any public opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.
The move by the Central Election Commission provides a smoother path for President Vladimir Putin to win a fifth term in power. He faces only token opposition from pro-Kremlin candidates in the elections to be held on March 15-17, and is almost certain to win, given his tight control over Russia's political system.
Nadezhdin, a local lawmaker in a town near Moscow, needed to collect at least 100,000 signatures from supporters — a requirement that applies to candidates from political parties not represented in the Russian parliament.
The Central Election Commission declared more than 9,000 signatures submitted by Nadezhdin's campaign invalid, enough to disqualify him. Russian election rules stipulate that potential candidates may withdraw no more than 5% of their submitted signatures.
He has publicly called for an end to the nearly two-year war in Ukraine and for the start of a dialogue with the West. Thousands of Russians lined up across the country last month to sign papers supporting his candidacy, an unusual show of opposition sympathy in a tightly controlled political landscape.
60-year-old Nadezhdin, whose name is derived from the Russian word for “hope,” gave a sense of optimism to those who oppose the war, many of whom stood in frigid temperatures across the country last month to sign petitions. .
Starting peace talks with Kiev was among his campaign promises, as was the idea that Russia was not a “besieged fortress” and needed to focus on working with the West rather than entering into confrontation with it.
Speaking to officials at the Election Commission on Thursday, Nadezhdin asked them to postpone their decision, but they refused. He said that he would appeal the decision to exclude him before the court.
“It's not me standing here,” Nadezhdin said. “Hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens who signed their signatures for me stand behind me.”
Putin is running as an independent candidate, and it was necessary for his campaign to collect at least 300,000 signatures in support of him. He was quickly allowed to participate in the ballot earlier this year, as election officials disqualified only 91 of the 315,000 ballots submitted by his campaign.
Most opposition figures who might have challenged Putin have either been imprisoned or exiled abroad. This includes opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose bid to run against Putin was also rejected in 2018 and who is now serving a 19-year prison sentence on extremism charges.
The vast majority of independent Russian media has also been banned under Putin.
The head of the Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, said that the ballot will include only four names, which is the smallest number of candidates since 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev ran instead of Putin for a limited period. Medvedev easily won the race with three other symbolic contenders in a power-sharing agreement that kept Putin in his position as prime minister.
Three candidates running against Putin next month were nominated by parties represented in parliament and were not required to collect signatures: Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and Vladislav Davankov of the New People's Party.
These parties largely support the Kremlin's policies. Kharitonov competed against Putin in 2004, finishing second by a wide margin.
Exiled opposition activists, including members of Navalny's team, have thrown their weight behind Nadezhdin, urging their supporters to sign petitions for his nomination.
Image by Alexander Kazakov/Sputnik/The Kremlin via AP
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin does not view Nadezhdin as a “rival.”
Speaking after the election commission hearing, Nadezhdin stressed that many Russians want change.
He said: “You can dismiss Nadezhdin from the elections, there is no doubt that you can do that.” “But where do you put the tens of millions of people who want change, who don't agree with the path the country is taking now? That's the problem. These people are not going anywhere.”
Nadezhdin is the second anti-war campaigner to be denied his place on the ballot. In December, the Election Commission refused to certify Ekaterina Dontsova's candidacy, citing problems such as spelling mistakes in her papers.
Dontsova, a journalist and former lawmaker from the Tver region north of Moscow, announced plans last year to challenge Putin. In promoting the vision of a Russia that is “peaceful, friendly and ready to cooperate with everyone on the basis of the principle of respect,” Merkel said she wanted the fighting in Ukraine to end quickly and for Moscow and Kiev to come to the negotiating table.
Abbas Galliamov, Putin's former speechwriter turned political analyst, said the decision to keep Nadezhdin off the ballot showed how hollow support for Putin is.
He added: “All of Putin's huge popularity, which official sociology constantly broadcasts, and all this 'rallying around the national leader' that Peskov regularly talks about, is in fact a very artificial and unstable structure that does not withstand any connection with reality.” He said.
The refusal to register Nadezhdin as a candidate is unlikely to lead to any street protests. Demonstrations have been rare in Russia since February 2022, when anti-war marches led to mass arrests and eventually faded away. Nadezhdin himself has publicly expressed the idea of calling for protests, but stressed that this would only be possible if the government allowed it, which it rarely does.
Earlier this month, Navalny urged his supporters to show their opposition to Putin by coming to the polls to vote at a specific time on Election Day — a move he hoped would lead to long lines and turn into a “powerful demonstration of the country's mood.”
Leonid Volkov, Navalny's chief strategist, echoed that call on Thursday, saying the decision to reject Nadezhdin “serves one purpose: to sow despair, so that more people give up and decide not to go anywhere.”
In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Volkov said the March election was a “propaganda effort to spread despair” and “instill despair in all ordinary people in Russia” by creating an image of Putin’s overwhelming popularity.
“Millions of people will come to vote against Putin, but if every one of them in our vast country comes alone, they will be easy prey for Putin's propaganda, and will fall for the lie that there are few people like him out there. If everyone comes at the same time and sees each other, “Propaganda will be powerless.”
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