Putin May Be Re-Election Shoo-in, but He’s Taking No Chances

 In U.S.

Mr. Navalny’s exclusion from the March election “casts a serious doubt on political pluralism in Russia and the prospect of democratic elections next year,” the European Union’s foreign service said in a statement on Tuesday.

It also risks pushing politics in exactly the direction the Kremlin wants to avoid — onto the street. Mr. Navalny, who has set up offices in 84 cities across Russia, called on Wednesday for nationwide protests on Jan. 28 to rally support for a boycott of the March election, which he has ridiculed as a farce.

“We won’t have an election because Vladimir Putin is horribly afraid — he sees a threat in competing with me,” Mr. Navalny, 41, said in a video that, anticipating the decision to bar him, he recorded before the ban was announced. “The process in which we are called to participate is not a real election. It will feature only Putin and the candidates which he has personally selected.”

That the Kremlin is afraid of Mr. Navalny is in no doubt. His name is taboo on state-controlled television, unless he is being found guilty of fraud, organizing illegal protests or other alleged crimes. Polling organizations linked to the state don’t include his name when they ask people what they think of leading political figures.

What’s confusing, however, is exactly what the Kremlin has to fear.

Allowing Mr. Navalny to compete in March might help Mr. Putin solve one of his biggest problems: how to turn an election that promises to be little more than a tedious coronation into a contest with a frisson of excitement. A low turnout is something the Kremlin desperately wants to avoid.

Opinion polls conducted by the independent Levada Center show Mr. Putin’s approval rating at around 80 percent and indicate that he would crush Mr. Navalny in a race. A Levada poll in early December found that 66 percent of respondents who said they planned to vote would choose Mr. Putin, with only 2 percent favoring Mr. Navalny. That is far below the 27 percent of the vote that Mr. Navalny received when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013.

Mr. Putin’s old friend and handpicked prime minister, Dmitri A. Medvedev, recently dismissed Mr. Navalny, without mentioning his name, as a “rogue” trusted by nobody. But the state media apparatus has still gone to great lengths to airbrush him out of Russia’s otherwise somnolent political landscape, seemingly reluctant even to utter his name.

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