Kremlin fears a low turnout in poll would harm Putin legitimacy

Weekend presidential vote: Opinion polls indicate Putin ahead of all seven rivals

Vladimir Putin has made a late appeal to his people to participate in Sunday's Russian presidential election and make their voices heard in selecting the nation's leader.

"I am sure that every one of you thinks and worries about the fate of the motherland," Mr Putin said in a video posted on the Kremlin website on Friday. "And therefore I turn to you with a request to come to the polling stations on Sunday and use your right to choose the future of our great beloved Russia. "

Opinion polls indicate that Mr Putin, who has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for more than 18 years, has a commanding lead over all seven rival candidates standing alongside him in the election.

However, the Kremlin is concerned that many voters may decide to skip the poll, and that a low turnout will undermine the legitimacy of Mr Putin’s fourth presidential term.

Campaign for boycott

Alexei Navalny, Russia's most popular opposition leader, has been campaigning for a nationwide boycott of the election since being barred from the ballot by the authorities last December.

A low turnout would explode the myth of the Russian president’s high popularity rating, Mr Navalny’s supporters say.

The March 18th date set for the election marks the fourth anniversary of the treaty that formalised Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 – an event that was condemned internationally but propelled a surge in Russian national pride.

Mr Putin, who made a brief appearance at a rally of supporters in Crimea this week, has suffered from a cold for much of the campaign and attended few election events.

Other candidates have sparred in political debates on Russian state television that have often descended into abusive shouting matches. Ksenia Sobchak, a TV celebrity and liberal opposition activist, fled the stage in tears during the final debate on Wednesday after her hollering rivals prevented her from being heard.

A survey by the All Russia Center for the Research of Public Opinion this week indicated that Mr Putin would win 69-73 per cent of the vote. The closest runner-up with 10-14 per cent would be Pavel Grudinin, a wealthy farm manager who is representing the Communist Party, followed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist head of the Liberal Democratic Party (8-12 per cent).

Kremlin-orchestrated ‘circus’

Both Ms Sobchak and Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko Party, have slammed the election as a Kremlin-orchestrated "circus" exposing that Russian democracy is a sham.

Sunday’s vote will be closely watched for signs of irregularities that have marred recent Russian elections. Several opposition leaders, including Mr Navalny, have recruited large numbers of volunteers to observe polling stations and monitor the turnout.

The Kremlin is eager to demonstrate that the election is managed fairly, but the main priority is to ensure that a majority of Russia’s 109 million registered voters participate in the poll.

Get-out-the vote initiatives

An election observer mission deployed in Russia by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported this week that “ a multitude of actors, including local authorities, private and state enterprises” had engaged in “concurrent get-out-the vote initiatives with a view to ensuring a high voter turnout” across the country.

Sergei Sobyanin, the pro-Kremlin mayor of Moscow, warning of the negative consequences of Mr Navalny's election ban on Friday, said that "many western experts and media" would politicise a low turnout as protest vote against Mr Putin.

“Do you agree with this? Personally, I don’t. If we trust Putin, if we consider him our president, let’s turn out and support him,” Mr Sobyanin wrote in a blog on Echo Moskvy radio’s website.