On Wednesday, 6 December, President Vladimir Putin stated that he would run for re-election in the March 2018 presidential elections in Russia. President Putin made the announcement in a car factory in Nizhny Novgorod. At this point, it remains unclear whether Putin will run as the candidate of the United Russia (UR) party or as an independent. The Russian constitution bars presidents from running for re-election three consecutive times. Putin has been in power since 2000. He won two four-year mandates in 2000 and 2004, and then became Prime Minister during the one-term presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. He won the presidency again in 2012.
Putin faced with weak opposition for 2018 presidential elections
Putin will almost certainly remain president after the March 2018 elections. While multiple candidates are competing, the opposition is fragmented and does not generate a substantial challenge to the current power structure. The main organised political force opposing President Putin and the UR party is led by Alexei Navalny. Navalny has been positioning himself as a leader of the anti-corruption movement and tries to directly challenge Putin. However, Navalny is barred from running due to his alleged involvement in a money embezzlement scheme. Navalny and his supporters claim that the court decision was highly politicised and continue to run a grassroots political campaign. While he manages to gain some civil society support, Navalany is unlikely to generate a substantial challenge to Putin in 2018.
2018 will be a key test for the current power structure
The 2018 presidential election will be a key test for Putin. The polls will serve to determine the Russian acceptance of Putin’s domestic and international policies. Corruption scandals linked to state-owned and private companies as well as state institutions, and issues linked to poor governance and economic hardships periodically lead to social discontent. Despite the current social and economic issues, a June 2017 Pew Research Center poll shows that close to 87 percent of Russians have confidence in Putin. The result was echoed in a September poll conducted by the Russian state-run VTSIOM in which 82 percent of the participants stated they support Putin. Given current indicators, it is highly likely that the ruling system will remain in power in Russia in 2018. However, the overall success of the election will be determined by the participation rate, the degree of claims of electoral fraud both by local opposition and international organisations, and the extent of post-electoral protests.
The UR party will almost certainly continue to dominate the domestic political landscape in the coming years. The party scored a clear victory in the September 2016 legislative elections and controls 342 of the 450 seats of Parliament (Duma). While opposition figures such as Navalny will probably continue to challenge Putin and the UR party, it is unlikely that they will seriously alter the Russian structure of political power in the March 2018 elections.
Heightened risk of periodic public unrest
As the 2018 elections approach, there is a heightened risk of localised public unrest throughout the country. Members of human right groups, civil society organisations and opposition parties are likely to try to periodically stage protests. Main triggers for protests are corruption and poor governance issues as well as the detention of opposition figures. However, anti-corruption and opposition demonstrations are unlikely to threaten government stability.
All public rallies in Russia must be approved by local authorities and unsanctioned protests are highly likely to be dispersed by police. Opposition activists claim the ruling system uses this to stifle dissent. It is almost certain that activists will try to challenge protest bans ahead of the March 2018 elections by conducting unsanctioned public gatherings in city centres. All unsanctioned rallies will almost certainly be heavily policed, and security forces will use crowd control tactics to disperse participants. Detentions by the police are likely to be indiscriminate in and around protest sites, elevating collateral risks to bystanders.