Russia’s search for a fake presidential candidate is unearthing its rampant sexism instead

Ksenia Sobchak, the socialite daughter of Putin’s mentor, is one rumored candidate.
Ksenia Sobchak, the socialite daughter of Putin’s mentor, is one rumored candidate.
Image: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
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Every presidential election cycle, the Kremlin goes through a long charade of finding an opposition candidate who seems plausible enough to make the election look at least a trifle genuine.

In 2012, Vladimir Putin’s regime presented Russia’s richest man, playboy mining magnate and the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, as his headline opponent. Prokhorov performed the task admirably, holding elites and journalists in at least some doubt as to whether he was a real candidate or not, and picking up around 8% of the vote to finish behind the perpetually second-place, old-school communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov.

Prokhorov had carried off the assignment with far greater aplomb than Sergei Mironov in 2004, who—while nominally running against Putin—said he supported the president and planned to vote for him. Mironov came last with less than 1% (pdf, p.28) of the vote, but was rewarded with the speakership of the upper house of Russia’s parliament for almost a decade. When Mironov was kicked out of that post, he claimed he was going to run against Putin for real in 2012—he still finished last (pdf, p.27).

This time, respected financial paper Vedomosti reports (Russian language), the Kremlin wants to try something new: a big-name female candidate.

Hold on before you go thinking an enlightening mist has descended upon Moscow’s political elites. Two women have run for president in Russia in the past, Ella Pamfilova picking up 1% in 2000 and Irina Khamadova taking 3.8% in 2004—and judging by the comments by male analysts in Vedomosti’s piece, it’s not hard to see why none has since.

“A colorful and elegantly sexual female politician would bring intrigue to the elections and inspire a new generation of Russian women to take up politics,” Vedomosti writes, paraphrasing analyst Aleksey Chesnakov. “It’s strange that in Russia—a female country—women don’t have aspirations to hold the highest posts,” Chesnakov told the paper. Is it really, Mr. Chesnakov?

Analyst Konstantin Kalachev came up with a similar description—though not as a way of boosting diversity, but seemingly as a kind of reality TV: “You’ve got to somehow freshen up the script, build up some kind of drama,” Vedomosti paraphrases. He warned that having a serious female candidate was a “dangerous dream,” since women are Putin’s main constituency.

His colleague Mikhail Vinogradov said there was no need for the whole idea, telling the paper that women would just “take votes from everyone.” He wasn’t completely opposed to have a “feminine woman,” however, saying that would “slightly soften voters’ fatigue and irritation” with perpetual no-hope candidates Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky.

When asked if team Putin did indeed want a female candidate, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied that the idea of a woman running for president hadn’t crossed its collective mind, saying (paywall), “We haven’t thought about that in the Kremlin.”

Perhaps we won’t see such a spin on the regime’s governing philosophy of ”managed democracy“ (paywall) after all.