Russian election officials reject anti-war politician Boris Nadezhdin’s bid to oppose Putin

Anti-war politician Boris Nadezhdin was rejected on Thursday as a candidate in next month’s presidential balloting by Russian election authorities, 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 an even smoother path for President Vladimir Putin to win a fifth term in power.

He faces only token opposition from pro-Kremlin candidates in the March 15-17 vote and is all but certain to win, given his tight control of Russia’s political system.

Nadezhdin, a local legislator in a town near Moscow, had needed to gather at least 100,000 signatures of supporters – a requirement that applies to candidates of political parties that are not represented in the Russian parliament.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on Thursday. Photo: Alexander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The Central Election Commission declared that more than 9,000 signatures submitted by Nadezhdin’s campaign were invalid, which was enough to disqualify him. Russia’s election rules say potential candidates can have no more than 5 per cent of their submitted signatures thrown out.

He has openly called for a halt to the nearly two-year-old war in Ukraine and for starting 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 sympathies in the rigidly controlled political landscape.

The 60-year-old Nadezhdin, whose name is a form of the Russian word for “hope”, gave a sense of optimism to those opposing the war, and many of them stood in bitterly cold temperatures across the country last month to sign petitions.

Starting peace talks with Kyiv was among his campaign promises, as was the idea that Russia is not “a besieged fortress” and needs to pivot toward working with the West rather than being in a confrontation with it.

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Speaking to officials at the election commission on Thursday, Nadezhdin had asked them to postpone their decision, but they declined. He said he would appeal his disqualification in court.

“It’s not me standing here,” Nadezhdin said. “Hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens who put their signatures down for me are behind me.”

Putin is running as an independent candidate, and his campaign was required to gather at least 300,000 signatures in his support. He was swiftly allowed on the ballot earlier this year, with election officials disqualifying only 91 out of 315,000 that his campaign submitted.

Most of the opposition figures who might have challenged Putin have been either imprisoned or exiled abroad.

That includes opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose attempt to run against Putin in 2018 also was rejected, and he is now serving a 19-year prison sentence on extremism charges.

The vast majority of independent Russian media outlets also have been banned under Putin.

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Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova said the ballot will have only four names – the fewest number of candidates since 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev ran in place of the term-limited Putin.

Medvedev easily won the race with three other token contenders in a power-sharing deal that kept Putin in charge 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 Party.

Those parties largely support the Kremlin’s policies. Kharitonov ran against Putin in 2004, finishing a distant second.

Exiled opposition activists, including those on Navalny’s team, had thrown their weight behind Nadezhdin, urging their supporters to sign his nomination petitions.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said the Kremlin does not view Nadezhdin as “a rival”.

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Speaking after the election commission hearing, Nadezhdin stressed that many Russians want change.

“You can remove Nadezhdin from the elections, no question, you can do it,” he said.

“But where do you put tens of millions of people who want change, who do not agree with the course that is now taking place in the country? That’s the problem. These people are not going anywhere.”

Nadezhdin is the second anti-war hopeful to be denied a spot on the ballot. In December, the election commission refused to certify the candidacy of Yekaterina Duntsova, citing problems such as spelling errors in her paperwork.

Duntsova, a journalist and a former legislator from the Tver region north of Moscow, had announced plans last year to challenge Putin.

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Russian politician Yekaterina Duntsova speaks to journalists on Decmeber 27 after she appealed in Russia’s Supreme Court a decision by Russia’s Central Election Commission to reject her nomination for the upcoming presidential election. Photo: AP

Promoting a vision of a Russia as “peaceful, friendly and ready to cooperate with everyone on the principle of respect”, she said she wanted to end the fighting in Ukraine swiftly and for Moscow and Kyiv to come to the negotiating table.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speech-writer who became a political analyst, said the decision to keep Nadezhdin off the ballot showed how hollow the support for Putin was.

“All of Putin’s mega-popularity, which official sociology constantly broadcasts, all that ‘rally around the national leader’ that Peskov regularly talks about is, in fact, a highly artificial and unstable structure that does not withstand any contact with reality,” he said.

It is highly unlikely that the refusal to register Nadezhdin as a candidate will produce any protests in the streets. Demonstrations have been rare in Russia since February 2022, when anti-war rallies resulted in mass arrests and eventually fizzled.

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Nadezhdin himself has publicly entertained the idea of calling for protests, but stressed that those would be possible only if the government authorises them, which it rarely does.

Earlier this month, Navalny urged 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 result in long queues and turn into “a powerful demonstration of the country’s mood”.

Navalny’s top strategist Leonid Volkov reiterated that call on Thursday, saying the decision to reject Nadezhdin “serves one goal: to sow despair, so that more people throw in the towel and decide not to go anywhere”.

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