1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Russia votes: Why does Putin bother holding elections?

Sergey Satanovskiy
March 15, 2024

Russians have begun voting in a three-day election that President Vladimir Putin is certain to win. Analysts say he's using the 2024 poll to give the illusion that democracy exists in Russia.

A man casts a ballot at a polling station during a presidential election in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok
Voting has started in Russia's 2024 presidential electionImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Critics have regularly said Russia is a dictatorship but nonetheless, between March 15 and 17, the country is holding a presidential election.

But the outcome has been predicted long before polls opened: Vladimir Putin, who has been in charge of the country for the past 25 years, will win a fifth term. That means he would remain in power in the Kremlin until at least 2030.

The only clear opposition figure, liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin, has been barred from running by Russian courts, including the Supreme Court, on appeal.

Other candidates include Nikolai Kharitonov, 75, who represents the local Communist Party. This party's candidate usually comes second to Putin — albeit a distant second. Kharitonov has criticized some of Putin's domestic policies but supports Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Vladislav Davankov is also in the running. At 40, he's one of the youngest candidates and has presented himself as more of a liberal when it comes to the curbing of individual freedoms in Russia. However, he has also said he won't criticize his political opponents.

According to the Reuters news agency, Kharitonov and Davankov might each receive between 4% to 5% of the total vote.

Nadezhdin: 'Putin leading Russia in the wrong direction'

Election shows that Putin, Russian majority 'are united'

But although all Russia watchers have said Putin is poised to win, the Russian presidential election does actually serve a purpose. Its objective is to address internal and external challenges faced by Putin's regime, said Konstantin Kalachev, a political analyst and former Kremlin adviser.

Inside the country, the election allows for the legitimation of the president's power and demonstrates that the Russian people are united around their leader, he said.

"And externally, it's to show that Putin is implementing [foreign] policy based on people's demands," Kalachev told DW. "It demonstrates that the president and the Russian majority are united and dispels any illusions in the West [to the contrary]."

In a country where everybody assumes the outcome is a given, it can be hard to persuade people to go out and vote. But as Meduza, an independent news website based in Latvia, wrote earlier this month, Russian authorities are taking measures to ensure that the presidential election looks as legitimate as possible.

Russia's Vladimir Putin up for reelection

The goal is a voter turnout of 80%. This is done, Meduza reported, "by mobilizing the electorate dependent on the government: public sector employees, employees of state corporations and large companies, loyal to the government, as well as their relatives and friends."

Members of Putin's own party, United Russia, are encouraged to bring at least 10 people with them to polling stations, the news outlet said, citing contacts close to the political party.

Government and party officials can see exactly who turns out because of electronic voting or digital codes used to identify voters.

In his state of the nation speech to Russia's Federal Assembly in late February, Putin also offered ordinary Russians a number of sweeteners before the elections, including a pledge to boost the economy. He also repeated his resolve to continue the military operation (as he calls it) in Ukraine.

Will Russians come out and protest?

Even though the only genuinely anti-Putin candidate, Nadezhdin, has been barred from participating, there may still be some form of protest vote.

Most Russian opposition forces have fled the country, but they have called upon their supporters to take action during the elections.

The widow of recently deceased Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, called on supporters to turn up at voting booths en masse at midday on Sunday, March 17 as a tribute to her late husband.

"You can ruin the ballot, you can write 'Navalny' in big letters on it," Yulia Navalnaya said in a recent YouTube video. "And even if you don't see the point in voting at all, you can just come and stand at the polling station and then turn around and go home," she suggested, adding people should vote for "anyone but Putin."

Having large crowds turn up to polling booths all at once won't change the final result, but it could certainly disrupt the impression that Russians overwhelmingly support Putin, said Nikolay Petrov, a visiting fellow in the Eastern Europe research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

That's quite likely to irritate Putin, he added.

"It's a mistake to think that it's easier for authoritarian regimes to have elections than for democracies," Petrov said. "It's very important for Putin to demonstrate to his political elite that he is supported by the vast majority of Russians.

"That's why the Kremlin wants to demonstrate very good results and also avoid any scandals."

This article was originally published on March 14, 2024. It has been updated to reflect that polls has opened.

Edited by: Cathrin Schaer and Kate Hairsine