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Campaign begins for Russia's presidential election

© SPUTNIK/AFP/File | Putin is widely expected to sail to victory, cementing his status as Russia's longest-serving ruler since dictator Joseph Stalin.

MOSCOW (AFP) - 

Campaigning officially started on Monday for Russia's presidential election in March, in which President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win a fourth term that would keep him in power until 2024.

Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta published a resolution adopted by the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, scheduling the election for March 18.

Lawmakers had earlier voted to change the date of the March vote so that it marks the fourth anniversary of the signing of a treaty formally annexing Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. The treaty came two days after a controversial referendum deemed illegal by the West.

Putin, who was first elected president in 2000, is widely expected to sail to victory, cementing his status as Russia's longest-serving ruler since dictator Joseph Stalin.

With the result of the election a foregone conclusion, turnout could be low, analysts warn.

According to a study by the independent Levada pollster released last week, 58 percent of Russians said they would vote in March, down from 75 percent in December 2007.

Last week, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, said 23 people had expressed their wish to run for the presidency. She added that the number of presidential hopefuls could grow.

One of the potential candidates is Ksenia Sobchak, a former socialite turned liberal TV presenter who many suspect is running as a Kremlin "spoiler" candidate to split the opposition and boost interest in the polls.

Putin's top critic Alexi Navalny, 41, has been barred from putting his name on the ballot paper because of a criminal conviction, which he says is politically motivated.

Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the long-time leaders of Russia's Communist Party and ultra-conservative LDPR, who are tolerated by the Kremlin and sit in parliament's lower house, the State Duma, have both expressed a desire to run.

They are not expected to win more than 10 percent of the vote, however, according to the Levada pollster.

During his annual end-of-year news conference last week, Putin said he would stand for election as an independent candidate rather than with the backing of the ruling party, United Russia.

© 2017 AFP