The preliminary list of candidates for the Russian presidency was drawn up on January 28 when the Central Election Commission (CEC) stopped accepting signatures collected by the candidates. Those candidates who intended to run independent of any party support had to collect two million signatures in their support and file them with CEC.
There are four parties in the new State Duma, the lower house of parliament, but only two of them have nominated their candidates. The powerful United Russia did not nominate a candidate as it supports incumbent President Vladimir Putin, who has chosen to stand as an independent candidate. The nominee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) is Nikolai Kharitonov, while the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) advanced Oleg Malyshkin. The members of the fourth Duma party, Homeland, have failed to come to terms on whom to nominate and missed the chance.
Apart from 2 party-nominated candidates, there are 5 independent ones, namely incumbent President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Mironov, Speaker of the Federation Council or the upper house of parliament, Homeland leader Sergei Glazyev, famous democratic leader Irina Khakamada, who has failed to secure the support of her party, the Union of Right Forces (SPS). Ivan Rybkin, ex-Duma Speaker and Security Council secretary and current liberal opposition leader, completes the list. He is also a close friend of fugitive oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who is living in London as a political exile.
Three of the ten politicians, who had announced the intention to stand for the presidency, had to step down for different reasons. However, the remaining candidates do not make up the final list either. Within 10 days, the CEC will check on the prescription lists. If a quarter of the signatures on a list prove to be improperly processed, invalid or counterfeit, the commission may decline to register the candidate. Accordingly, all candidates have secured an extra of 200 to 500 signatures.
This has stirred up public debates about the efficiency of Russia's election law. Experts and the press have for a long time criticised the signature collection procedure. It is believed to have evolved from a democratic procedure into a formality. Experts are certain that no one, save the immensely popular incumbent president, can collect 2 million signatures in no fewer than 50 Russian provinces in a month.
It is no secret that commercial agencies, rather than party activists or candidates' supporters, often collect signatures for presidential hopefuls.
The candidates who have secured enough campaign funds easily find an agency that will ensure the required number of signatures for them without even leaving the office. The scheme is simple. Such agencies have a database with information about Russian citizens across the country. This information, although it is classified, can be obtained from the Interior Ministry, for example. The signatures of, for example, Kaliningrad or Far East residents are written down in the list right in the agency's office in Moscow. They are, certainly, counterfeit. Such signature collection efforts shot with a hidden camera have been shown on television several times. Although the previous election campaign also featured counterfeit signature scandals, nothing has been changed in the procedure.
There is yet another weak point in the procedure. It is almost impossible to test the authenticity of signatures, which leaves room for arbitrary decisions on the part of CEC. Indeed, it is the commission that rejects the lists. Candidates can contest the commission's decision. However, this is a time-consuming enterprise, whereas the presidential race waits for no one.
Many papers are again predicting that the CEC will not approve all the lists and some of the candidates will have to step down. Newspapers write that CEC, or rather the Kremlin, can "axe," above all, Sergei Glazyev, who has recently emerged as a left wing opposition leader and has every chance of becoming the No 2 candidate for the presidency, and Irina Khakamada, a democrat in opposition, who has indulged in too sharp criticism of President Putin. Some reports have suggested that the Kremlin promised Glazyev support in the parliamentary elections on condition he did not stand for the presidency.
Anyway, even if this claim is true, nobody can come close to touching President Putin's immense popularity today. Indeed, he enjoys the support of 80% of voters, according to popularity ratings. The incumbent leader will only stand to gain from rivalry with Glazyev and Khakamada. Their presence will add respectability to the presidential race and attract more voters.
It was only a short time ago that Russia and the rest of the world predicted that Russia's presidential elections would lack alternative candidates. However, this prediction has not come true, with the leaders of all political forces about to join the race.
At the same time, the final list of candidates may yet become shorter.