Russians go through the formality of voting in their country’s presidential elections on Sunday, March 18 — though there can be few doubts as to who the winner will be.
President Vladimir Putin is a shoo-in for his second consecutive—and fourth overall—term as president. His most vocal opponent, Alexei Navalny, has been disqualified from the race, and the other candidates running against Putin have been vetted by the state.
In a month in which China’s National People’s Congress voted near-unanimously to remove restrictions on term length, effectively making Xi Jinping president for life, Russia’s elections warrant close scrutiny. In what is effectively a one-horse race, anything less than an emphatic victory could weaken Putin’s grip on power.
Here are the key details to know about Russia’s presidential election this Sunday:
When is the Russian election?
Russians head to the polls on Sunday, March 18 for a first-round of voting. The date is significant in that it is the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
A second-round vote could be held three weeks later, on Sunday, April 8, if no candidate secures an absolute majority. That’s extremely unlikely, though: in six presidential elections, a second round has only been needed once — in 1996, when incumbent Boris Yeltsin defeated Gennady Zyuganov in a run-off vote.
Unlike in the U.S. or Europe, there is typically little fanfare around Russian elections. Campaigning usually begins a few months before polls open and, as in past years, Putin has shunned televised debates, CNN reports.
In 2012, the polls closed at 8 p.m. local time and Putin claimed victory about two hours later.
Who is challenging Putin?
Seven names beside Putin’s will appear on ballot papers March 18. Although they appear to fan from right to left across the political spectrum, with Putin in the center, no candidate besides the incumbent ranks at above 10% in state-owned polls. These are three of the most prominent outsiders.
Odds-on to place second, according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, the Communist Party candidate Grudinin is actually something of a capitalist. He is best known for privatizing a state-run strawberry company and converting it into a profitable agricultural enterprise. Grudinin says his farming complex pays its workers fairly, furnishes them with good homes, and provides parks for their children. That, Grudinin argues, serves as a model for how post-Soviet Russia should be run.
A former member of Putin’s United Russia Party, Grudinin has nevertheless been openly critical of corrupt practices at the upper echelons of Russian society. Although state-run polls make him the closest challenger to Putin, they give Grudinin under 8% of the ballot.
Zhirinovsky, a 71-year-old right-wing populist, is famed for his xenophobic outbursts. He won 6% of the presidential vote in 2012; this year, state news network Russia Today has him at a similar 5.6%, according to Business Times International . Despite fiery campaign rhetoric, in parliament, Zhirinovsky staunchly totes the Kremlin’s line.
Journalist and former reality-TV star Sobchak has a startling liberal agenda. She has denied Russia’s elections will be free and fair, advocates for LGBT rights, believes Crimea belongs to Ukraine, and apologized for Russian meddling in the United States 2016 presidential elections.
Her stance has caused some to question whether Sobchak — daughter of a late St. Petersburg mayor with close ties to Putin — is for real. Russian opposition has branded Sobchak a Kremlin puppet, designed to give the elections an air of legitimacy. She says it’s the Kremlin that has pushed that narrative as a means to discredit her.
“They endlessly spread these rumors,” Sobchak told TIME’s Simon Shuster in December. “They congratulated me two minutes after I announced my candidacy. Then a whole set of strange people threw their hats into the ring, clearly to diminish the value of my campaign. Intelligent people have long learned to discount these cheap Kremlin schemes.”
Polls suggest Sobchak is unlikely to win more than 2% of the vote.
What happened to Alexei Navalny?
Putin’s most outspoken critic Alexei Navalny declared his candidacy in December 2016, and then embarked on an American-style campaign to drum up support.
Navalny has been a perennial fly in the President’s ointment, and has been jailed and detained numerous times for organizing anti-Putin marches. He was nearly blinded in 2016 after a chemical was thrown in his face by a pro-Kremlin activist.
His run was cut short before the year even began. In December, Russia officially barred the activist from contesting the election, citing an embezzlement charge Navalny claims was politically motivated. It’s not the first such charge. In October, Europe’s top human rights court ruled that a 2014 fraud conviction Russia levied against Navalny was “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.”
Navalny has since urged his 1.8 million YouTube follows to boycott the elections.
How long has Putin been president?
Putin was first elected Russian president in 2000 after the resignation of Yeltsin. He has remained the head of state for all but four years in the time since. He spent a four-year spell (2008–2012) as prime minister, as mandated by Russia’s two consecutive term limit.
In 2012, a constitutional amendment extended presidential term lengths from four to six years, which means that Putin could stay in power until 2024.
What are the major issues in the Russian election?
Soaring inflation and Western sanctions have bitten hard in Russia, where a recession led to real wage declines for each of the past three years. But according to CNN, the economy is bouncing back and inflation has stabilized just in time for the elections. The Russian Parliament, where Putin’s United Russia party has a large majority, also recently passed legislation to slightly raise the minimum wage to 11,163 rubles ($197) per month.
Voters have scant incentive to show up for elections where the winner is a sure thing, and that’s a concern for the Kremlin. The absence of a clear mandate for Putin would make Western accusations of Russian autocracy more difficult to refute. An embarrassing turnout could also dent Putin’s prospects of holding onto power beyond a second consecutive term.
According to CNN, the Kremlin’s magic number is 70-70: that’s 70% of the votes from a 70% turnout — but independent polls suggest that’s a long shot. In November, the Levada Center — a non-partisan pollster which Russia deems a “foreign agent”— determined that just under a quarter of Russians would definitely vote in March, while 34% said they were likely to but hadn’t decided. The State-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) forecast a +70% turnout.
How could the election affect Russia’s relationship with the West?
Russia’s election comes as scandal swirls around the Kremlin. In the U.S., Special Counsel Robert Meuller’s dragnet appears to be tightening on various figures with links to Russia and President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May has issued Moscow an ultimatum over its alleged role in the poisoning of a former spy on English soil. Russia has been lambasted for interfering in democratic processes across Europe.
None of these charges will profoundly affect Russia’s election. In fact, Putin’s adversarial relationship with Western leaders has won him plaudits at home. The President enjoyed a more than a 10% jump in his popularity rating after he annexed Crimea and — even as sanctions hit — it has not slid significantly since.
Should these elections return a strong mandate for Putin, the U.S. and Europe may have to contend with a still more brazen Russia.