The Kremlin, left, and St. Basil Cathedral, center right, are...

The Kremlin, left, and St. Basil Cathedral, center right, are reflected in the Moskva River during sunset in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Russia's 2024 presidential elections aren't expected to bring change to the Kremlin. Credit: AP/Pavel Golovkin

This week's election in Russia is expected to cement President Vladimir Putin's grip on power until at least 2030.

Any opposition figures who could have challenged him are either in prison or exiled abroad. Independent media outlets that could show criticism of his policies have been blocked. And the Kremlin maintains rigid control over the political system and electoral process in the country of 146 million.

Still, the Russian election will be closely watched by those looking for insight into the major nuclear power as it continues its 2-year-old full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming election, how voting works, who is on the ballot and whether the vote will be free and fair.

WHO CAN VOTE IN THE RUSSIAN ELECTION?

Any Russian citizen over age 18 who is not in prison on a criminal conviction can vote. The Central Election Commission says there are 112.3 million eligible voters inside Russia and Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, and another 1.9 million eligible voters live abroad.

Turnout in Russia’s 2018 presidential election was 67.5%, although observers and individual voters reported widespread violations, including ballot-box stuffing and forced voting. Turnout in the 2021 parliamentary election was 51.7%.

Acting Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin prepares to...

Acting Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin prepares to cast his voting ballot at a polling station in Moscow Sunday, March 26, 2000. Voting in Russia's 2024 presidential elections will take place over three days between March 15-17. It is the first presidential election in Russia when polls will be open for three days instead of one. Credit: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

HOW WILL VOTING UNFOLD?

Voting across the vast country will largely be carried out starting Friday and ending Sunday. It is the first time in a Russian presidential election that polls will be open for three days instead of one.

Russia first used multiple-day voting in the 2020 referendum on constitutional reforms orchestrated by Putin to allow him to run for two more terms.

It's also the first presidential election to use online voting — the option will be available in 27 Russian regions and Crimea, which Moscow illegally seized from Ukraine 10 years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot at a polling...

Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Sunday, March 14, 2004. With most opposition figures either in jail or abroad and many independent media outlets blocked, the Kremlin maintains a tight control over the country's political system and the vote is all but guaranteed to see President Vladimir Putin, 71, cement his place in power until at least 2030. Credit: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

The vote will also take place in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — the four regions annexed after the full-scale invasion in 2022, even though Russian forces don't fully control them. Kyiv and the West have denounced holding the vote there. Early voting has already started in some regions and will be gradually rolled out in others.

WHO IS ON THE BALLOT?

Putin, 71, is listed as an independent candidate and is seeking a fifth term in office, which would keep him in power for another six years. He will then be eligible to run for another term, having pushed through constitutional changes that reset his term limits in 2020. First elected in 2000, he is now the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Others on the ballot were nominated by Kremlin-friendly parties represented in parliament: Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and Vladislav Davankov of the New People Party. Kharitonov ran against Putin in 2004, finishing a distant second.

They broadly support Kremlin policies, including the war in Ukraine. Previous elections have shown such candidates are unlikely to get enough votes to mount a challenge to Putin. In 2018, the Communist Party runner-up got 11.8%, compared with Putin’s 76.7%.

Boris Nadezhdin, a liberal politician who made ending the war his main campaign theme, had drawn unusually broad support while gathering signatures to qualify for a spot on the ballot. But he was barred from running by election officials who declared that many of those signatures were invalid.

Also not on the ballot are opposition figures who could have posed a challenge to Putin. They have been either imprisoned or fled the country. Russia's best-known opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, died in prison on Feb. 16 while serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges. His attempt to run against Putin in 2018 was rejected.

WILL THE RUSSIAN ELECTION BE FREE AND FAIR?

Observers have little hope the election will be free and fair.

Independent observers have criticized extending the vote over several days and allowing online balloting, saying such tactics further hinder election transparency.

Opposition groups in 2021 said digital voting in parliamentary elections showed signs of manipulation. Activists reported practices such as forced voting, with video on social media showing ballot-box stuffing.

In the 2018 presidential election, an International Election Observation Mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that vote lacked genuine competition and was marred by “continued pressure on critical voices.”

DOES THE ELECTION EVEN MATTER?

Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst who used to be Putin's speechwriter, has described the vote as one where “multiple choice is replaced with a simple, dichotomic one: ‘Are you for or against Putin?’" and has said that it will be a ”referendum on the issue of the war, and a vote for Putin will become a vote for the war."

But with no real alternatives to Putin on the ballot, the fractured and weakened opposition sees the election as a somewhat limited opportunity to demonstrate discontent with him and the war.

Shortly before his death, Navalny urged voters to show up at the polls at noon on Sunday, the final day of voting, to push that message in a way that the authorities cannot stop.

“Putin views these elections as a referendum on approval of his actions. Referendum on approval of the war,” Navalny had said in a statement passed on from behind bars. “Let’s break his plans and make sure that on March 17, no one is interested in the fake result, but all of Russia saw and understood: the will of the majority is that Putin must leave.”

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