Breaking Down Russia’s 2024 Presidential Election

Putin is expected to easily win reelection in a rigged contest this weekend. The war will continue. But Russia’s workers are organizing.


Between March 15 and 17, Russia will conduct its next presidential election. Vladimir Putin is the overwhelming favorite to win, and his victory would mean that by the end of his next term in 2030, he’ll have been in power for nearly 30 years. 

Putin has remained at the highest levels of leadership since the year 2000 when he was first elected President. From 2008 to 2012, Putin served as prime minister of Russia, as a constitutional rule barred presidents from running for more than two consecutive terms. That rule was repealed in 2021, opening the road for Putin to be reelected in 2024. Through a similar sequence of constitutional machinations, the presidential term was extended from four to six years.

Naturally, the legality of all these moves and elections must be called into question. Rampant corruption and electoral fraud set the ground for an authoritarian political regime that stomps out dissent and opposition and suppresses any calls for democratic reform. Disposing of opposition activists and jailing protests are common practices in today’s Russia.

Conditions in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union have been marked by years of corruption and violent capital accumulation. These are precisely the conditions that lead to political instability and a turbulent society and economy, which in turn gave rise to social upheaval. Each of these upheavals was met with batons, tear gas, and imprisonment. The defeat of protests against the electoral sham in 2011, the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, general conditions of deterioration and poverty amongst working people, and of course most recently, the war in Ukraine have all solidified Putin’s authoritarian grip on power. He does not intend to let go of it this cycle. Moreso, as some have theorized, the Russian war economy that was transformed by the conflict in Ukraine, is enabling Putin to strengthen his authoritarian rule. In fact his hold on power depends on keeping it going.

The Official Opposition

Legally and constitutionally, Russia remains a multi-party system with proportional representation. Six different parties have seats in the Federal Parliament or Duma. In reality, the government is a one-party system, with Putin as President and United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya) as the controlling political party. Nonetheless, three other candidates from three different parties will be sharing a ballot with Vladimir Putin this March.

First, Nikolaĭ Kharitonov is a candidate from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). He served as a representative in the State Duma (lower chamber of Parliament) since 1994. This is his second bid for the office. One must be very aware that the word “communist” in KPRF does not carry any commitment to revolutionary working-class politics. It does not serve as an alternative party that represents the workers. Rather it entrenched itself into Putin’s system for crumbs of political capital and actively supports many imperialist policies, including the invasion of Ukraine.

Leonid Slutsky is a millionaire and a candidate from the right-wing ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Slutsky is the party chairman and served in the State Duma since 1999. He is known for being accused of sexual harassment in a major scandal in 2018 and for his central role in 2022 in the escalations of conflict in Ukraine by spreading rumors and misinformation about secret underground biochemical warfare laboratories in Ukraine.

Finally, the last candidate that made it onto the ballot was Vladimir Davankov of the New People Party (Noviye Ludiy). This is a new centrist liberal party that was formed in 2020 and now holds just a few seats in the State Duma. Despite the general agnosticism toward Putin, the party supported the invasion of Ukraine, and the rest of its political program is quite uninspiring. 

Many candidates from other parties were kicked off the ballot by pro-Putin forces in the government through a series of technocratic machinations and fraud. Most notably, the politician Boris Nadezhdin was not able to run. Nadezhdin openly criticized the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine and he was someone who the liberal opposition tried to coalesce around.

Outcome Foreordained

Is there any chance that Putin might be unseated this year? Even the most optimistic analysts and activists will make a solid claim that the electoral process will not be conducted fairly and will be controlled from the top. This is the reality of the Russian political order. In 2012, Putin won with 64 percent of the vote and in 2018 he won with 77 percent of the vote. There should be no expectation that this will change.

Moreover, we can expect a heightened level of electoral manipulation to mask any actual discontent among the people. There is anger about the war in Ukraine, political repression, and most recently the mysterious death of Alexey Navalny, a leading opposition politician. But it is hard to imagine the government will allow that dissatisfaction to be registered in the polls. The secret weapon of the regime this cycle will be online voting. It was first attempted during the State Duma and city council elections in Moscow in 2021. Through the online government portal, voters will be able to sign up, receive the online ballot, and cast their vote. It sounds suspicious because it is. “Both times, counting procedures for electronic ballots were entirely opaque, provoking numerous scandals,” reported the journalist Andrey Pertsev. The inability to question and observe the ballot processing methods and the lack of transparency create a ripe opportunity to falsify elections. Moreover, by its design, this method will lead to widespread voter disenfranchisement. Pertsev claims that around 40 percent of traditional observable polling sites will disappear. And those voters who prefer the “old-school” in-person methods of voting will be forced to find new sites, re-register, and stand in long lines. It’s likely that many, faced with these hurdles, will make the calculation that it would be much easier to just stay at home.

The new voting method won’t just create an “unlimited potential for fraud,” however. The ruling party will also use the method to solve an inherent contradiction. It will potentially be able to concoct the appearance of “record turnout” while suppressing people’s actual ability to express dissent and protest at the ballot box. If the polling sites are empty on March 15th, then the state media can just say that everyone enthusiastically made use of e-voting and stayed home. And if the polling sites have long lines because half of them are gone and voters are forced to clump and stand in long lines, then the media can share the visuals and claim how much people are eager to vote and turn out. The reported results of the elections, of course, can then be tweaked behind the scenes to fit the narrative.

The Left Opposition

If the ballot box is an insufficient tool for Russian opposition to challenge Putin and his regime, how will the Russian left approach the election? It is important to nonetheless have a strategy and discussion because elections are very politicized moments everywhere. People are more aware of political dynamics and more receptive to talking about policy, both foreign and domestic. It is true everywhere, even in places like Russia, where political apathy and alienation are especially prevalent.

For the upcoming elections, neither liberals nor leftists were able to come up with a unified approach. 

On the left, there are several slightly distinct tactics that have emerged. In coalition with activists and journalists, the Russian Socialist Movement — an organization of progressive leftists and democratic socialists, known by its acronym “RSD” in Russian, and strongly opposed to the war in Ukraine — put out a program called “For a Just World.” It calls for voters to turn out precisely at noon (as part of the “Noons against Putin” protest), cross out all the candidates on the ballot, and then write on the ballot “For a Just World.” By doing so, one ruins their ballot, as it will be most likely voided as illegitimate. The campaign also includes a widely-shared short program that demands peace, democracy, ecological reforms, dignified labor laws, and more.

Another campaign was published by the Union of Marxists on their Telegram channel to over 13,000 followers. The Union of Marxists calls on people to boycott the elections, arguing that the rigged process must not be given any validation. At the same time, the Union of Marxists calls on people to get involved in the organizing work to build political alternatives from the bottom-up. They encourage people to get involved in workplace struggles, ecological campaigns, agitation on the streets, and more. They conclude by plugging an online organizing training.

The Russian democratic left will serve as an inspiration for many years to come. Today, they are writing a playbook for organizing amidst extreme government repression and state violence. Here, in the United States, socialists gear up to a dreadful Biden vs. Trump re-match. The far right is on the rise, wars are getting hotter day by day. And in both Russia and the US, socialists are wrestling with the question of how to build an independent political organization that is rooted within and led by the working class. Our socialism must be international, and as we continue building solidarity across the globe, here in the US, we should be paying closer attention to how the Russian left attempts to rediscover itself amidst the deadly gloom of Putin’s regime.

The Liberal Opposition

Liberals — most importantly Alexey Navalny (before he was killed) and Maksim Katz — have tried to push tactical voting as the solution for Russia’s troubles. Katz and Navalny’s apolitical approach to the upcoming election will not only fail to really mobilize and empower working people in Russia, it is hard to see how it could possibly topple Putin’s regime.

Alexey Navalny was perhaps one of the most famous Russian opposition politician and activist. The Western liberal darling had a rich and swinging political career. From humble beginnings as a staffer in the center-left Yabloko party, he graduated into organizing right-wing nationalist marches. He would go on to attempt a few unsuccessful electoral runs and would find his political revival as the founder of the Anti-Corruption Fund. The Fund’s YouTube channel gathered millions of views publishing investigations into the corrupt operations of Russian elites. He became an agitator and a public communicator. He talked about something people in Russia already knew about — the pervasive corruption of Putin’s government — but perhaps were too scared to say out loud.

Yet, he did not aim to organize people into a political movement until 2018. It was an election year that became infamous for the sheer amount of visible electoral fraud. Navalny himself tried to run as a presidential candidate but was barred from participating. Two months after the election, the government announced an increase in the retirement age and a neoliberal pension reform. This sparked a massive wave of protests in Russia. Off the backs of these protests, Navalny announced his new strategy — “Smart Voting.”

The essence of this strategy is simple. Vote for anyone but United Russia, the ruling party. Navalny and his team claimed to conduct “thorough sociological work and research” to determine “the best” candidate. The team is reserved in its definitions and does not really elaborate on what being “the best” implies. The best for what or for whom? The team does not say. They are ready to sacrifice political programs and principles, for the sake of breaking the ruling party monopoly. An indicator of political positions can be the fact that “Smart Voting” endorses a lot of candidates from the center-left Yabloko party.

The liberals’ endorsement of this kind of tactical voting depoliticizes the elections. Political vision and policy points are arguably what motivate people the most to turn out for a candidate. Yet little is known about any of the candidates that Navalny’s team endorses and their political positions are either vague, absent, or unappealing. With added fear of state retaliation and political persecution, why would Russian people turn out to vote?

A fellow opposition activist and a former Moscow municipal deputy turned YouTuber Maksim Katz does not seem to provide answers to the questions posed. Katz’s position is to call for the unity of all opposition activists, especially those who are producing outward-facing materials and content online or on TV. This included Katz himself (he has nearly 2 million followers on YouTube), Navalny (nearly 6 million followers on YouTube), punished entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky (over 1.5 million followers on YouTube), and others.

Katz bet that after open war broke out in Ukraine in 2022, all of the opposition would be united in its messaging around it. In his letter to Navalny, Katz criticized him for not fully embracing the antiwar message (Navalny’s position on the Ukraine war was always complicated). Katz wrote at the time:

“When the war broke out myself and all the other activists were waiting for you to change the rhetoric. That you would take the position of unity. That we could form some sort of a coordinating body where we would preside, discuss different opinions, find a common denominator, and translate our consolidated position to a broader layer of antiwar Russians… That is how we could have grown our influence and intervene in the situation when we get a chance.”

To his credit, Katz carries a greater sense of the need for mass mobilization, and how opposing the war in Ukraine can be at the center of that, as a widely and deeply felt issue among Russians. Mothers of mobilized Russian men have already been organizing small pickets and protests across the country. Foregrounding the antiwar message as a central issue informed Katz’s alternative political strategy for the 2024 election.

On his YouTube channel, he published a video endorsement of Boris Nadezhdin — a former member of the State Duma and the only candidate who opposed the continuation of the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine. Katz’s endorsement significantly boosted Nadezhdin’s petition-gathering effort and tipped him beyond the requirements to appear on the ballot. However, on February 7th, the Central Election Commission barred Nadezhdin from participating in the upcoming elections. The official statement claimed that the amount of faulty signatures went over the legal 5%. A more natural explanation for this ban would be Nadezhdin’s open opposition against the war.

All Eyes on Russia’s Working Class

Today, any candidate other than Putin is destined to either lose the election or be booted off the ballot entirely. Just like it happened with Nadezhdin. Katz and Navalny both knew that. They did, however, miss out on an agitational campaign that would serve as a tool to reach and organize frustrated masses of people and channel it into a fight for concrete political issues like an end to the war and the establishment of real democracy in Russia. Unfortunately, the Russian opposition currently lacks a strong leadership. Navalny’s personal political zig-zag turned him into a chameleon whose message ended up being: “let’s get rid of Putin and then decide what to build.” And Katz’s apolitical character comes out whenever he talks about a wish to “return to normalcy.” When, during the last 30 years of market shock therapy, was it ever normal for working-class Russians? Katz does not explain. From the market shock and the violent entrepreneurism of the 1990s to the wars in Chechnya and Georgia in the 2000s, the annexation of Crimea and the complete political deterioration in the 2010s, to the mismanagement of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine in the 2020s, there’s been no wonderful recent past to return to. 

Ultimately, an answer to capitalism’s crises that have ravaged the country over the past decades, requires political solutions that both Katz and Navalny have failed to provide.

As socialists, our hope is with Russia’s working class. 

Both Katz and Navalny ignore, in many hours of their political polemics, the workers as agents of social change. They are wrong in doing so. Today’s material reality in Russia shows that it is not a pie-in-the-sky ideological posturing, but a serious political blunder. Workers in Russia show more and more frequently that they can organize and withhold their labor to deliver political and economic demands, often in defiance of the law.

In January, ambulance workers and medical first responders from the cities of Arkhangelsk and Novodvinks went on strike. Their grievance was inadequate pay and they addressed the petition directly to Putin. Last October, lawyers within the Federal Chamber of Advocates (a non-governmental, non-commercial organization for defense lawyers, but not formally a labor union) put out a letter calling for a “warning action” (read: strike), on the grounds that legal work in present-day Russia has become increasingly dangerous. They claimed that fear of political persecution prevents them from doing their job. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of delivery workers founded the new labor union “Courier.” The new union carried a distinct class-struggle approach. Through a variety of tactics like petitioning, community solidarity organizing, and of course striking, members not only demanded and fought for a variety of political and economic demands but also won them. By running militant campaigns on the ground, supported by various left-wing organizations, members of the “Courier” won wage increases, helped restore employment for fired coworkers, and won adequate winter uniforms. Moreover, members have shown how organized labor can become a political force by launching a campaign to free Kirill Ukraintsev, one of the union’s founders and a left-wing journalist who was arrested for organizing strikes and demonstrations.

Rebuilding the militant labor movement in Russia is not just an idealistic dream. What we are witnessing are the early seeds of the class-conscious organization of Russian people. Russian socialists and opposition leaders should reorient themselves towards organizing broader masses and bring into widely felt political struggle. What the Russian version of a strategy that empowers rank-and-file workers to lead and change their country may still be hazy — but it’s in this direction that we should place our hopes for a democratic and peaceful Russia.

Daniil Sapunkov is a Moscow-born student organizer based in New York City. He is a member of NYC-DSA, Hunter College YDSA, and the Bread & Roses Caucus.