Opposition leader Navalny fights to run against Putin in Russia election

By AFP/Anna Smolchenko   December 23, 2017 | 06:42 pm PT
Opposition leader Navalny fights to run against Putin in Russia election
Law enforcement officers detain an opposition supporter during a rally in Moscow, Russia, March 26, 2017. Photo by Reuters/Maxim Shemetov
Navalny has called Putin 'a swindler' and said he would not give up.

Alexei Navalny, seen as the only Russian opposition leader who stands a fighting chance of challenging President Vladimir Putin, will seek Sunday to get his name on the ballot for an election in March.

The charismatic 41-year-old has declared his intention to contest the vote but officials have deemed him ineligible to run due to a criminal conviction, which he says is politically motivated.

Putin, 65, announced earlier this month that he will seek a fourth presidential term, which would extend his rule until 2024 and make him the longest-serving Russian leader since dictator Joseph Stalin.

Despite a litany of problems such as corruption, poor healthcare and increasing poverty, Putin enjoys approval ratings of 80 percent and is expected to sail to victory against token opponents.

Navalny has called Putin "a swindler" and has indicated he would not give up.

"I want to secure your support," Navalny told his backers in a blog post this week.

"Not letting us contest the election is impossible."

The Western-educated lawyer says he is the only Russian politician who has been conducting a genuine election campaign, travelling to far-flung regions over the past year and urging everyday Russians to vote for him.

On Sunday, he will seek to get himself registered with the Central Election Commission, hoping that popular support for his bid would pressure officials into putting his name on the ballot.

To boost his chances Navalny will seek to get his candidacy registered in 20 cities across the country.

In each city he will need at least 500 people to formally nominate his candidacy.

Navalny is expected to take part in the main event in Moscow, where he claimed a member of the Central Election Commission would attend the gathering.

He said that finding a premises in Moscow had been so hard that his campaign decided to pitch a tent in a park on the shores of the Moscow River.

Tapping into youth anger

Navalny has built a robust protest movement that includes nearly 200,000 campaign volunteers despite persistent harassment of himself and his supporters and his offices being vandalized.

Just this year he has served three jail sentences of 15 days, 25 days and 20 days for organizing unauthorized anti-Putin protests.

Navalny shot to prominence as an organizer of huge anti-Putin rallies that shook Russia from 2011 to 2012 following claims of vote-rigging in parliamentary polls but gradually died down.

This year he has been able to breathe new life into the opposition movement by tapping into the anger of a younger generation of Russians yearning for change.

Many critics scoff at Navalny's Kremlin bid but the plucky lawyer says he would beat Putin in a free election if he had access to state-controlled television, the main source of news for a majority of Russians.

During his end-of-the-year news conference this month Putin said the opposition was hoping for a "coup" when asked why Navalny had been barred from running.

At a congress of the ruling United Russia party Putin on Saturday said the opposition should have a "clear programme of positive actions".

"We should respect the capable and responsible opposition. And being such opposition means not only having a desire, a readiness to argue with the authorities or accuse them of all mortal sins," said Putin, who refuses to mention Navalny by name in public.

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