Reality-TV Star Says She’ll Challenge Putin in Presidential Election

Updated on
  • Daughter of Putin’s former mentor declares 2018 candidacy
  • Sobchak, Navalny clash over possible opposition election bid

How Putin Became the Symbol of Russian Power

Socialite and reality-TV star Ksenia Sobchak said she plans to run against Vladimir Putin in presidential elections in March, declaring herself the representative of those who want to vote “against all” the other candidates.

“I’m going to take part in the elections, not just as a candidate but as a mouthpiece for those who can’t become candidates,” said Sobchak, who’s the daughter of Putin’s political mentor, the late Anatoly Sobchak, in a letter published by Vedomosti newspaper on Wednesday. “I’m ready to criticize the existing system.”

Ksenia Sobchak

Photographer: Vladimir Tretyakov/Getty Images for Capital Partner

Her declaration ends weeks of hints that she intended to run. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who’s already announced his candidacy but is barred by law from getting on the ballot, called her bid part of a Kremlin plan to present “a caricature liberal candidate,” in an online talk show on Sept. 21.

Putin, 65, is widely expected to announce that he’ll seek a fourth term to extend his presidency to 2024 and complete nearly a quarter-century in power as the longest-serving Kremlin ruler since Josef Stalin. While he’s all but certain of victory, the Kremlin’s challenge is to motivate voters to turn out so that Putin gets a credible mandate even as Russia emerges from its longest economic contraction this century. The main parties in Russia’s parliament have repeatedly nominated the same candidates to face Putin, despite their evident failure to win support at the polls.

Vocal Critic

Sobchak, 35, is a sometime vocal critic of Putin who took part in anti-Kremlin protests that erupted before the 2012 presidential election. Putin has often described Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of St. Petersburg and democratic reformer, as a major influence on him when they worked together in the 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“It’s possible that when my son reaches voting age, there will still be the same candidates,” Sobchak, who became a mother last year, said in a YouTube video announcing her candidacy. “We have to change the system of power,’’ she said, adding that she thought Putin wasn’t pleased when she told him of her decision.

Navalny, who’s currently serving a 20-day jail term for calling anti-Kremlin protests, said in his broadcast that a Sobchak candidacy would be part of a “repulsive Kremlin game under the name ‘Let’s drag a liberal laughing-stock into the elections to distract attention.”’

Ideal Opponent

While the Kremlin will seek “to use my campaign as a legitimization of this election,” Sobchak said she intends to “talk about how bad things are in this country” and demand Navalny’s registration as a presidential candidate. If he’s allowed to run, she’ll consider dropping out of the contest, she said.

Kremlin officials identified Sobchak as an ideal opponent for Putin as they considered the idea of a woman candidate to liven up the contest, Vedomosti reported last month, amid worries that voter boredom with the usual party candidates may lead to low turnout. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, then Russia’s third-richest man, had a similar impact as a newcomer in 2012, gaining support from people disaffected by Putin, particularly in Moscow, while finishing a distant third with 8 percent.

Sobchak is a “talented person” and her participation would “fully comply” with Russia’s constitution, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview on the independent Dozhd TV.

An initial test of Kremlin willingness to allow her to compete will be the ease with which she’s able to collect 300,000 signatures from voters around Russia in support of her candidacy to get on the ballot.

Uphill Battle

Sobchak faces an uphill battle to win support. Only 0.4 percent of Russians would back her for the presidency, while 53 percent oppose the idea of a woman as head of state, according to a Sept. 15-19 survey of 1,600 people by the Moscow-based Levada Center polling company.

Her candidacy will be considered successful if she gets more than 2 percent of votes, said Alexei Makarkin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, according to the RIA Novosti news service.

Navalny, who’s held nationwide rallies in support of his candidacy, is barred from the election because of a fraud conviction that he says is politically motivated. Part of his electorate may back Sobchak, who could get as much as 8 percent at the polls, according to Valery Solovei, a political scientist at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations.

“She could attract the young, her campaign would be hyped-up, fashionable and counter-cultural,” said Grigory Kertman, senior analyst at the FOM polling company in Moscow, which assisted Prokhorov’s campaign. “She’s much better known than Prokhorov was at the time of his nomination.”

— With assistance by Henry Meyer

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