Russian authorities on Thursday excluded from the presidential race the only candidate who openly challenged President Vladimir V. Putin’s power in Russia and who called the decision to invade Ukraine a “fatal error.”
The decision by the Russian Central Election Commission, the body that administers elections in Russia, constitutes the latest predictable twist in a campaign that there is no doubt will result in Mr. Putin’s re-election in March.
Mr. Putin’s expected victory in the March 15-17 presidential election would secure him a fifth term in the Kremlin, cementing his reign as one of the longest and most consequential in Russian history.
The commission’s rejection of anti-war candidate Boris B. Nadezhdin demonstrated how the Kremlin has decided to screen out all candidates who deviate from the party line. Mr. Nadezhdin had announced his intention to stop the war in Ukraine at the heart of his campaignattracting thousands of supporters across Russia.
More than 112 million people, including in occupied regions of Ukraine, are eligible to vote in elections, and about 65 percent of them are expected to do so, based on turnout in previous elections.
Instead of an election, analysts say the next vote will mainly be a referendum on Mr Putin’s policies – and particularly his decision to invade Ukraine two years ago.
“This should not be treated as a classic election by democratic standards,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Nevertheless, this is a serious procedure that represents stress on the system.”
Here’s a guide on what to expect.
How does Mr. Putin campaign?
As in the previous elections in 2018, Mr. Putin is running as a self-nominated candidate, without party affiliation, and he has not yet published an election platform.
He is unlikely to differentiate between his work as president and his campaign for re-election.
Dmitry S. Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said in late January that Mr. Putin’s daily routine would not be much different from his usual presidential schedule.
So far, Mr. Putin has participated in only one campaign event, meeting his supporters for a question-and-answer session in Moscow in late January.
Mr. Putin’s decision to run without party affiliation highlights his position above the political fray in Russia, said Aleksei Venediktov, former editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, a popular radio station closed by the government after the invasion of Ukraine.
“Putin said he had a contract with the people, not with the elites,” Mr. Venediktov said.
In 2018, Mr Putin received almost 77% of the vote, a figure he is expected to far exceed this time given the Kremlin’s complete control over the country’s political and media spheres.
What is the war in Ukraine like?
So far, the war in Ukraine has been a major backdrop to the presidential campaign. While the Russians overwhelmingly supported the war, a growth number say pollsters have said they would like the conflict to end with negotiations.
While Mr. Putin has displayed his support for Russian soldiers and their families, at least two other potential candidates have made the anti-war message central to their presidential bids.
With Mr Nadezhdin excluded from the vote, two candidates have now been rejected by the Central Election Commission.
Ekaterina Duntsova, a television journalist and former municipal deputy opposed to the war, had her candidacy rejected due to what she considers insignificant errors in her documents. Some dates were filled in a different format in the document, she said.
Mr. Nadezhdin, a municipal deputy from a suburban town near Moscow, was nominated by the Civic Platform party, which is not represented in the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament.
The election administrator said he rejected his application because he found too many errors in the signatures he submitted. Mr Nadezhdin said he would appeal the decision.
Who else is running?
Since Mr. Putin was first elected president of Russia more than two decades ago, the Kremlin has worked hard to strengthen its control over the electoral process.
All major television networks and print and Internet media were gradually brought under government control.
More importantly, any serious rivals were kept aside through intimidation and legal action. Aleksei A. Navalny, an opposition politician, is currently serving a 19-year sentence in a remote prison in the Russian Arctic on what his allies and legal observers say are trumped-up charges.
In an election where the outcome is taken for granted, the other candidates running do so for various reasons other than victory.
Some are encouraged by the Kremlin to do so to add a veneer of legitimacy to the race, analysts say; others want to use the campaign to increase their visibility or amplify their platforms – like ending the war in Ukraine.
Eleven potential candidates have had their applications accepted by the Central Election Commission to enter the presidential race. The commission can deny applications for a variety of reasons, including if a candidate fails to obtain enough signatures to support them. (Candidates from non-Duma parties must collect 100,000 signatures throughout Russia, and independents 300,000.)
In addition to Mr. Putin, three other candidates were nominated by political parties represented in the Duma that do not directly challenge Mr. Putin’s authority.
Leonid E. Slutsky was nominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, which, despite its official name, traditionally represents a right-wing, nationalist-leaning electorate.
Vladislav A. Davankov, a Russian lawmaker, was nominated by the New People party, a business-oriented and officially liberal, but pro-Kremlin, party. Until now, he has not released his platform.
Nikolai M. Kharitonov was enrolled in the Communist Party, traditionally the second largest political force in Russia. Although the party is sometimes critical of the Kremlin’s social policies, particularly its reliance on free-market policies, it has not openly campaigned against Mr. Putin in recent years. In January, Mr. Kharitonov unveiled his campaign slogan: “We have played the game of capitalism enough!”
A number of other little-known activists, including an environmental blogger, an economist and an obscure political imagery specialist, had expressed interest in running, but dropped out in late January.
How does the vote take place?
Russians will have three days to vote under a new system introduced in 2020 during the Covid pandemic, designed to make polling stations less crowded than a single day of voting. Critics say three-day voting makes it harder to ensure the process is fair and prevent fraud, such as handling ballots, particularly at night when ballots are removed from view public.
Election monitoring by outside, independent Russian groups will also be hampered by legislation that limits such activities – and by fear, as independent observers are targeted by authorities. The head of the main non-governmental election monitoring body was arrested in August.
In 29 Russian regions, including annexed Crimea and Sevastopol, citizens will have the opportunity to vote electronically.
In Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia in 2022, citizens will be allowed to vote with their Ukrainian passports, the election commission announced. There will also be 276 polling stations in 143 countries abroad.