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Russia's presidential election: A simple guide to the vote

Russia is holding a presidential election on Sunday, with President Vladimir Putin widely expected to win.

Still, Putin does have political opponents and the election has consequences for Russia and the West.

Here's CNBC guide to the vote.

What's happening?

The presidential election on March 18 will see Russia's registered voters — around 110 million people, as of 2016, out of a total population of 142 million — head to the polls.

If no candidate gains a majority in the first round of voting, a second round will be held later. This is rare in Russia and not expected this time, particularly as Putin is so far ahead in opinion polls.

"While President Vladimir Putin's electoral victory is a foregone conclusion, the Kremlin is keen to boost electoral turnout to increase legitimacy," Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, said in a note Monday.

"This, however, is unlikely to be successful: the latest polls suggest that voter participation will fall well below the Kremlin's unofficial target of 70 percent."

A Russian woman looks at the list of the presidential candidates ahead of casting her vote for the 2018 Russian Presidential Elections at the Honorary Consulate of the Russian Federation in Izmir, Turkey on March 14, 2018.
Emin Menguarslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A Russian woman looks at the list of the presidential candidates ahead of casting her vote for the 2018 Russian Presidential Elections at the Honorary Consulate of the Russian Federation in Izmir, Turkey on March 14, 2018.

Putin made a speech to the Federal Assembly a couple of weeks ago, outlining plans for more infrastructure, social spending and regional development, as well as announcing a new nuclear arsenal. Teneo's Dhand said the speech was intended "to drum up voters' participation by invoking national pride."

Many Western observers are skeptical of the fairness or representative nature of Russia's electoral process generally.

Who are the main candidates and parties?

Despite the widespread belief that Putin will be the winner of the election, he does have seven opponents also running for the presidency.

Here is a list of the candidates and their party affiliations, if any.

Vladimir Putin: The current president, Putin has been in power in both the presidency role and as prime minister since 1999. He ditched United Russia to run as an independent candidate in the 2018 election, a move interpreted as Putin trying to distance himself from the party. United Russia's popularity ratings lag those of Putin.

Pavel Grudinin: A businessman who's entered the election race with the backing of candidate of the Communist Party, Grudinin runs a former state farm outside Moscow that models itself on the Soviet cooperatives of the past.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky: Widely known as a nationalist and right-wing populist, Zhirinovksy is leader of the LDPR, formerly the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. He has run for the presidency five times and in an interview with German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle he praised international sanctions on Russia, saying they'd helped the domestic economy.

A billboard poster promoting Ksenia Sobchak, presidential candidate from the Grazhdanskaya Initsiativa [Civic Initiative] Party, in a street. Russia is to hold a presidential election on March 18, 2018.
Yegor Aleyev\TASS via Getty Images
A billboard poster promoting Ksenia Sobchak, presidential candidate from the Grazhdanskaya Initsiativa [Civic Initiative] Party, in a street. Russia is to hold a presidential election on March 18, 2018.

Grigory Yavlinsky: Co-founder of the Yabloko Russian liberal opposition party, Yavlinsky said in 2016 that he expected to beat Putin in the 2018 presidential race. Yabloko was founded in the early 1990s and supports civil liberties, good relations with Europe and free markets. Yavlinsky has run for the presidency several times before, as far back as 1996, but with little success.

Ksenia Sobchak: Sobchak is known as a socialite and TV personality in Russia, and was seen as the country's equivalent of Paris Hilton. She reinvented herself as a political activist, has taken part in opposition protests and represents the liberal party Civic Initiative, which was founded in 2012. Her father had close links to Putin in his early political career, but Sobchak says the Kremlin needs fresh blood and must repair its relations with the West.

Boris Titov: The chairman of the Party of Growth is seen as a marginal figure in Russian politics — 87 percent of 1,500 Russians polled by the Public Opinion Foundation in December said they'd never even heard of him. But he is another government figure, being the authorized representative of the president of the Russian Federation for the protection of entrepreneurs' rights, RIA Novosti reported.

Maxim Suraykin (R), a candidate from the Communists of Russia party, visits the town of Dolgoprudny, Moscow Region to give a masterclass in wrestling ahead of the 2018 Russian presidential election scheduled for March 18.
Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images
Maxim Suraykin (R), a candidate from the Communists of Russia party, visits the town of Dolgoprudny, Moscow Region to give a masterclass in wrestling ahead of the 2018 Russian presidential election scheduled for March 18.

Sergey Baburin: Standing for the nationalist Russian All-People's Union party, Baburin has called for Russia to bolster its geopolitical power in Eurasia. A veteran of Russian politics, Baburin voted against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Maxim Suraykin: The candidate for the Communist Party, Suraykin has adopted his party's economic and political ethos, advocating a Soviet-era socialist economy, and has promised to nationalize the banking system and to close the income gap between workers and management, Sputnik news reported.

What do the polls say?

Voter polls have consistently given Putin a large lead over the opposition. The most recent, carried out by WCIOM on March 4, predicted that Putin would get 69.7 percent of the vote. Previous polls had him on a similar percentage.

His nearest rival, Grudinin, received a 7.1 percent approval rating, followed by Vladimir Zhirinovksy with 5.6 percent.

Yavlinsky and Sobchak received around 1 percent of the vote, while Titov, Baburin and Suraykin were each seen with around 0.3 percent of the vote.

Needless to say, Putin is expected to win the election with a comfortable majority. Russia has been widely accused of having little political plurality and the government's political opponents have faced harassment and death.

In 2015, politician Boris Nemtsov, a prominent critic of Putin's government, was assassinated in Moscow and another anti-corruption campaigner and Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, has been barred from running from president. Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in a Russian court, meaning he can't run for election, although he denied the charges and said they were politically motivated.

Why does the election matter?

The 2018 presidential election will likely allow probable winner Putin to be able to consolidate and increase his authority in Russia for another six years.

Since 1999, Putin has interchanged between being prime minister and president as Russia doesn't allow for a president to serve more than two consecutive terms at a time. In both roles he was the country's undoubted leader, however, and he's managed to remain popular despite Russia's two-year recession amid lower oil prices.

Now, Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to grow by 1.7 percent in 2018 and 1.8 percent in 2019 due to increasing domestic demand.

The "strongman" of Russia has certainly put Russia back on the world stage as a superpower during his presidency, but Russia's relations with the West are strained. Its annexation of Crimea and support for a pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine in 2014 prompted international rebuke and sanctions remain.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses (C) a rally in his support at the Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the 2018 Russian presidential election scheduled for March 18, in Moscow, Russia on March 03, 2018.
Nataliy Zemboska | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses (C) a rally in his support at the Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the 2018 Russian presidential election scheduled for March 18, in Moscow, Russia on March 03, 2018.

In addition, it has been accused of meddling in the U.S. election in 2016, is accused of promoting populist, anti-establishment parties in Europe and is now in trouble with the U.K. after a former spy was attacked with nerve agent earlier this month.

Tensions with the West are likely to remain following the election, experts have noted.

Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, said Monday that Putin's recent speech to the Federal Assembly, in which he set out his economic, geopolitical and social policies, was an artful piece of self-promotion.

"A large part of Putin's Federal Assembly speech focused on geopolitics. This allows him to appeal to voters' sense of national pride by announcing the restoration of Russia's global power status while taking credit for it at the same time," Dhand said in a note.

"Invoking Russia's great power status will probably be the geopolitical leitmotif of Putin's next term in office, which suggests that relations between Russia and Western countries will remain strained for the foreseeable future."

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