21.02 Review

Hard Drying: The Kremlin aims to make elections dangerous for all participants and uninteresting for voters

Fear of an unexpected surge in protest voting is the main factor in the Kremlin's strategy for the upcoming March presidential elections. This conclusion can be drawn from monitoring the campaign's progress and its coverage on federal television channels, as presented by the Golos movement. Participation in the presidential elections has become risky even for candidates coordinated and approved by the Kremlin, according to experts who point to the decrease in the number of those willing to submit documents to the Central Election Commission. Similar to what happened last year with Pavel Grudinin, practically any candidate showing any energy can become the focus of protest sentiments and, as a result, find themselves under Kremlin pressure. Even after Boris Nadezhdin's withdrawal from the election race, the Kremlin has continued its wide-scale information campaign against him, designed to suppress the electoral potential that his anti-war stance mobilised at the signature collection stage. 67% of all stories about Nadezhdin are overtly negative. In general, the Kremlin is 'drying up' the turnout, which also indicates fear of a protest vote. TV airtime devoted to the election is two times less than it was in 2018, and the time devoted by TV channels to Putin’s presidential activities is four times more than the entire TV airtime devoted to the election. Putin's actual campaign is a series of trips around the country as president, allowing it to be structured Soviet-style around the theme of 'achievements of the national economy,' leaving the topic of war on the periphery.

The upcoming presidential elections in March hold no intrigue in terms of their outcome, but some degree of mystery remains in how convincing a spectacle of popular support the Kremlin will manage to organise (→ Re: Russia: The Struggle for Peace and the Nadezhdin Case). The Golos election observation movement, despite harsh persecution by the authorities (its leader Grigory Melkonyants is in a pre-trial detention centre and a number of activists have been searched), continues to monitor the course of the election campaign. Although there is virtually no campaign as such, Golos' monitoring allows it to track the specifics of the Kremlin's strategy in organising the election spectacle.

In the final report dedicated to the candidate nomination and registration stage, the analysis of which takes into account all the procedures and rules formulated by the regime itself, the experts note that the current presidential campaign is unique in its own way, not only because it is taking place in the context of the military operation, but also because of the unprecedented level of censorship and pressure on political opponents. 

Perhaps the main and most interesting conclusion of the Golos report is that participating in the elections under current conditions poses a threat even to ‘approved’ candidates. This is due to the high state of readiness of citizens to protest vote; if a systemic candidate shows a minimum level of persuasiveness, they risk becoming a focal point of protest sentiment and, as a result, may face Kremlin pressure. This happened in 2018 with the communist candidate Pavel Grudinin, whose ratings were rising rapidly. A massive campaign was organised against him, including 'black' PR, attacks on his business, restrictions on public activity, and negative media coverage. Despite this, Grudinin officially gained about 12% (likely significantly more in reality), diverting votes from both Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

As a result, the number of people willing to even submit documents to the Central Election Commission (CEC) has sharply decreased in the current elections: in 2018 there were 36 such individuals, in 2024 there are just 15. And among them there were almost no people representing any significant 'non-system' political movements and niches. Two candidates representing 'anti-war sentiments' whose self-nomination aroused public interest — Ekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin — were rejected by the CEC.

During the signature collection phase, Putin's campaign reported 3 million signatures in support of him, while Nadezhdin's headquarters reported about 200,000 signatures. But while the collection of signatures for Nadezhdin became a public event, little is known about the process of collecting signatures for Putin. Golos experts believe that Putin's headquarters utilised the resources of United Russia and the All-Russian People's Front to circumvent campaign finance restrictions, and that representatives of regional and municipal administrations and institutions were involved in collecting signatures. Golos suggests that the signature verification process remains highly opaque, with details unavailable to candidates and the public. The CEC's statement about over 9,000 invalid signatures for Boris Nadezhin seems unsubstantiated and likely results from falsifications in the expert examination.

The report also highlights the crisis in the party system during the presidential elections. Out of 25 political parties, only eight attempted to participate, and ultimately, candidates from just three parties remain in the race. At the same time, two parliamentary parties, United Russia and A Just Russia, did not formally nominate candidates at all. Additionally, most party candidates showed weak ties to their respective parties, as indicated by the analysis of financial and organisational support for candidates' headquarters.

The main factor contributing to inequality is the unequal media coverage of candidates' activities. The time dedicated to Putin on federal channels was 3362 times greater than the time given to Nadezhin. Another Golos report, specifically devoted to this issue, notes several key trends. First, the authorities are deliberately 'drying up' the elections: the duration of election-related stories is half of what it was in 2018. The focus is on achieving low voluntary voter turnout, reflecting the Kremlin's fears of potential protest voting.

Second, even after Boris Nadezhin's disqualification, state-controlled media continues to criticise him. In the week from February 12 to 18, mentions of three candidates (Kharitonov, Davankov, Slutsky) were neutral, with 6% positive stories about Putin as a president and 13% positive stories about Putin as a candidate. However, 67% of mentions about Nadezhdin had an overtly negative tone. In general, the time spent on stories about Putin as president was four times longer than the time spent on stories about presidential elections and other candidates. A convenient opportunity for this has been Putin's trips around the country, which have effectively become his election campaign. This allows him to build a Soviet-style campaign around the theme of 'achievements of the national economy', sidelining the topic of the war.