Celebrity journalist gets enough signatures to challenge Putin in election

Posted on: January 22nd, 2018 by ABC News No Comments

Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(MOSCOW) — Ksenia Sobchak, a former reality TV star-turned-journalist running against Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the country’s election this year, has gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot, her campaign said Monday.

In a post on its website, Sobchak’s campaign said she had obtained over 101,000 signatures, putting her around 10,000 over the threshold required to be registered as a candidate by Russia’s central election commission.

It means that Sobchak, who is the daughter of Putin’s political mentor and has sometimes been described as “Russia’s Paris Hilton,” will almost certainly be on the ballot when Russians go to the polls on March 18.

Her regional campaign director, Timur Valeyev, told the local newspaper RBC that the campaign will continue collecting signatures in case any are rejected as fake.

Sobchak’s registration adds a showbiz name to a list of otherwise familiar veteran candidates running against Putin, who is seeking another six-year term after 18 years in power.

Putin, who has marginalized all serious opposition to his rule, is widely expected to win without difficulty against the challengers, who critics of the Russian president say have only been allowed to take part to give the illusion of competition.

On Sunday, Putin’s campaign said it had halted signature collection for his candidacy after it reached half a million.

Sobchak herself has said she is not seeking to beat Putin, but rather pursuing a controversial protest campaign to highlight official corruption and the lack of political freedom in Russia. Sobchak, one of Russia’s best-known celebrities who several years ago reinvented herself as a successful liberal journalist, has called on Russia’s beleaguered liberal opposition to unite around her as its only substantial representative allowed to run, after its most popular leader, Alexey Navalny, was barred.

Her candidacy has instead, however, provoked an increasingly acrimonious schism among the opposition, with many in it accusing her of doing the Kremlin’s bidding, willing or otherwise. Critics have called her a spoiler meant to provide Putin with a safe liberal opponent to face off against and to divide the anti-Kremlin vote.

Ahead of her candidacy, leaks from Putin’s presidential administration to a leading business newspaper Vedomosti suggested the Kremlin considered her an “ideal candidate” to spice up the race against Putin. Skeptics also note the absence of the usual harassment faced by Putin critics. Navalny is regularly arrested and his campaign events disrupted. Sobchak, by contrast, has been given time on state media, where opposition figures normally face a blackout.

Criticism of Sobchak has intensified since Navalny was blocked from the elections. In December, Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who has built up a large grassroots following, was refused registration by the election commission. He was barred because of a fraud conviction that Navalny says is politically motivated, a claim backed by the European Court of Human Rights, which called his trial “arbitrary.”

After being blocked, Navalny called for a general boycott of the election and said Sobchak should withdraw.

Sobchak, who had previously offered to withdraw if Navalny was allowed on the ballot, has rejected a boycott, arguing it will be ineffective because it would be impossible to tell who stayed away in protest and who simply out of apathy.

The disagreement is increasingly pushing the two candidates into open confrontation. Navalny’s campaign had already indicated it considered Sobchak’s candidacy a Kremlin ploy, but both sides have previously sought to avoid publicly quarreling, believing it only aids the authorities. Still, the strains have begun to show.

In a video calling for the boycott, Navalny criticized the other candidates as only those who Putin “has personally chosen and who do not represent even the smallest threat to him and who aren’t running actual campaigns.”

Sobchak has been assiduously courteous to Navalny, regularly asserting his primacy within the opposition. But she has said the opposition ought to back the candidate able to run. After he was refused registration, she called on Navalny to join her campaign.

“I understand how insulting and difficult it is for Alexey, but the common good is more important,” Sobchak wrote in a post on her Instagram account.

But the dispute slid into public acrimony last week when Navalny’s supporters suggested on social media that Sobchak appeared to have been at a party with a Russian billionaire on the Pacific island of Bali, instead of gathering signatures for her campaign. When Sobchak disputed the claims, Navalny’s campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, suggested on Twitter that Sobchak had lied.

In response, Sobchak burst into a studio at a liberal radio station where Volkov was giving an interview last Monday. With two camera people in tow, Sobchak accused Volkov of lying about her and demanded an apology. Volkov refused and asked her to leave.

In a blog post after the fracas, Volkov accused Sobchak directly of being part of a “game of the presidential administration” and said Navalny’s campaign had no desire to be “dragged into” debates with her.

Putin “is our main opponent,” Volkov wrote. “As for the other participants of this show, we will, of course, talk about them. But only when their actions become maximum shameful.”

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