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Russian elections: Can Boris Nadezhdin beat Vladimir Putin?

Boris Nadezhdin, a candidate of the Civic Initiative Party, will be competing in Russia's upcoming presidential election scheduled for March 15-17

Boris Nadezhdin, a candidate of the Civic Initiative Party, will be competing in Russia's upcoming presidential election scheduled for March 15-17

Boris Nadezhdin successfully cleared the first hurdle to running for president when he received permission to collect signatures for his candidacy. He'll need this proof of support to run against incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin in the presidential election this March.

Nadezhdin said he had already gathered 200,000 signatures, twice as many as required by Russia's Central Election Commission. As a candidate for the center-right Civic Initiative Party, Nadezhdin only had to gather over 100,000 signatures to seek approval for the presidential ticket. Running as an independent candidate, Putin had to collect at least 300,000 signatures to make it on the ballot.

Only after the Central Election Commission has reviewed the candidate's submissions will he be permitted to formally register for the presidential election. In the past, some candidates have been rejected due to alleged formal errors. But Nadezhdin's electoral assistants said they felt well prepared.

"We are collecting signatures from 200 cities, 65 regions across Russia, and from eligible Russian voters in 30 other countries, including Germany," Nadezhdin told DW in an interview.

Should the Central Election Commission reject his bid, he told supporters he is prepared to call for mass protests in 150 cities across the country.

But who is this man willing to openly challenge Putin?

Who is Boris Nadezhdin?

To the Kremlin, Nadezhdin, 60, is a familiar face. His political career began in the 1990s, when he served as an adviser to the deputy prime minister at the time, Boris Nemtsov, and as an assistant to then-Prime Minister Sergey Kiriyenko, who is currently Putin's first deputy chief of staff.

Nadezhdin is currently the only anti-war candidate registered for the election. "Putin made a fatal error when he launched the 'special military operation.' None of the declared goals have been met. And it is unlikely that they will be met without causing major damage to the economy and dealing an irreparable blow to Russia's demography," Nadezhdin stated on his website, referring to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Nadezhdin's vision for Russia includes putting an end to the war in Ukraine. Those backing him appear to share that vision.

Support from younger generations

Long lines have sometimes formed in front of Nadezhdin's election office as thousands of people, mostly younger individuals, deal with freezing temperatures for hours just to give him their signature in support of his campaign.

"Most of my supporters are quite young, between 20 and 30 years old. But I also have older supporters," Nadezhdin told DW. "The oldest person to give me their signature was a woman born in Oryol in 1936."

He added that it was particularly important to younger generations to stand up for their beliefs, to protest — and to avoid being drafted into Russia's war in Ukraine. This is Nadezhdin's potential electoral base.

Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said he could imagine Nadezhdin would be able to mobilize young voters. "Twenty to 25% of the population don't support Putin," he told DW. "The problem is, they don't vote."

He added that these voters had little sympathy for the current president and the prevailing political system and even harbored contempt for the electoral system that has given rise to Putin's victories in the polls.

"Barring any disruptions — and there is no doubt that there will be disruptions — he could gather 10%-15% percent of the vote," Oreshkin said.

Uniting the opposition

Yekatarina Duntsova was the first to express her support for Nadezhdin's nomination. Her endorsement came after the Central Election Commission excluded her from the race, citing "errors in the documents" submitted. She underscored that Nadezhdin was the only anti-war candidate.

Numerous other oppositional figures, who rarely agree on much, have also expressed their willingness to back Nadezhdin. They include former poker champion and political figure Maxim Katz, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Anti-Corruption Foundation of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and his wife Yulia Navalnaya.

"I haven't spoken with Khodorkovsky, or with anybody else," Nadezhdin told DW. "I haven't asked them for money or support. But I'm grateful to every Russian citizen who supports me through legal channels."

Nikolay Petrov, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs think tank in Berlin, told DW he believed Nadezhdin was a weak candidate. In the past, he was perceived as a pragmatist who wouldn't shy away from cooperating with the Kremlin if it served his interests, the researcher said.

Petrov said he believed oppositional figures are in unusual agreement on Nadezhdin as a presidential candidate because "he's simply the only candidate who has positioned himself against the war in any way."

How realistic is victory for Nadezhdin?

Observers agree that it is very likely Putin will win his fifth term in office on March 17. Recently, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov summarized just how slim most believe Nadezhdin's chances for winning are when he responded to a journalist's question with: "We don't consider him to be a competitor."

Oreshkin agreed that Nadezhdin is not a serious contender to take over the president's office. On the contrary, he might even be useful for the Kremlin to maintain a veneer of free and fair elections, the analyst said.

"It is certainly convenient for the Kremlin if comfortable or acceptable candidates are on the ballot," he told DW. "I think Boris Nadezhdin falls into the category of acceptable candidates. But only as long as he doesn't gather more than 5% of the votes."

"Ideally, Putin should receive about 80% of the votes, and the second place should fall to Leonid Slutsky," he added.

Slutsky is head of the right-wing nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, but does not position himself in opposition to Putin and is supportive of Russia's war in Ukraine.

If Nadezhdin wins more than 5% of the votes, Oreshkin believed it might represent an ideological victory, though not an electoral one. Such a scenario, the analyst explained, would mar the glossy image of a Russian people firmly united behind the war in Ukraine.

This article was translated from German.