‘He’s just not charismatic’ Russia’s leaders want this guy to take second place in the next election. They have their work cut out for them.
The Putin administration’s political bloc wants Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of Russia’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), to win second place in the country’s upcoming presidential election, according to two sources from Russian regional governments, one source from a presidential envoy’s office, and two sources from the LDPR’s leadership who spoke to Meduza.
It’s unclear exactly how much of the vote the Kremlin wants Slutsky to receive; the party leader himself did not give specific figures when he announced the plan at an LDPR party meeting in early January, and regional officials have not been given precise numbers by the President’s Office.
“The most important thing is that the president receive about 80 percent; the rest is just variations. Right now, [the other candidates, Nikolai Kharitonov, Leonid Slutsky, and Vladislav Davankov,] are a blank slate for voters, and how much of the vote they garner depends largely on themselves. But [the Putin administration’s political bloc] advised us that we need to help Slutsky,” a source from the leadership of one of Russia’s regions told Meduza.
At the same time, both the source and one of his colleagues from a different Russian region explained that their task is not to engage in “falsification and corrections” but to promote Slutsky during his campaign tour. “Find a good background for his departure, highlight him on TV, and play him up on social media pages [run by local governments],” one source said.
A source from one of the presidential envoys’ offices, however, told Meduza that helping Slutsky win second place in the election will be “difficult” and will “verge on impossible.” “He’s totally inarticulate [as a politician], and this is especially noticeable [to voters] after Zhirinovsky. [Communist Party candidate Nikolai] Kharitonov is also like that, but the Communist Party’s electorate is more disciplined. For now, [all of the candidates except for Putin] have low levels of support,” said the source.
In his view, the Putin administration will not hold regional governments “strictly responsible” if Slutsky fails to come in second: “Everyone understands the situation: there’s a chance he won’t win over voters simply because he’s not charismatic.” In a poll conducted by the state-owned public opinion agency VTsIOM, 16.1 percent of respondents said they have a favorable view of Slutsky, while 30.6 percent said they don’t trust him. In an open survey, no citizens named the LDPR leader as a politician they feel they could rely on.
Two sources from the LDPR told Meduza that Slutsky himself is very eager to win second place due to the current fissure in the party: many former close associates of the LDPR’s late founder Vladimir Zhirinovsky refuse to recognize Slutsky’s leadership. According to Meduza’s sources, these Slutsky opponents include Yaroslav Nilov and Alexey Didenko, the chairs of the Russian State Duma’s Social Policy Committee and Local Self-Government Committee, respectively. In late December 2023, both politicians were removed from the LDPR’s Supreme Council. “But they continue to interact with the presidential administration; they’ve maintained fine relationships [with Putin’s team]. So Slutsky needs to win second place in order to show that he’s the party’s main figure — even Zhirinovsky never won second place,” an LDPR source told Meduza.
He and one other source from the party said that it’s possible that Slutsky personally asked the Putin administration for help and received “approval and assistance” in response. The sources said the Kremlin understands that Slutsky’s bid for second place will lead him to actively invest in PR campaigns, which will in turn increase public interest in the election overall.
In the course of his trips throughout Russia’s regions, Slutsky has met with governors and appeared on national TV. The Kremlin has instructed pro-government and state-controlled news outlets to refer to the LDPR leader as an “experienced Russian politician and State Duma deputy who’s been elected six times,” as well as to emphasize that the core tenets of the LDPR’s platform are “conservatism and patriotism, the protection of the Russian world, and a peaceful return of all of the territory of the former USSR to Russia by means of referenda.”
Meduza has previously reported on the Putin administration’s desire for the LDPR to replace the Communist Party as Russia’s second most represented party in the 2023 regional elections, an outcome the Kremlin hoped would “bring the Communists to their senses” before the 2024 presidential election. According to a source close to the president’s office, this demotion will allow the administration to better monitor the Communist Party — and to prevent it from drawing strength amid the economic problems facing Russia as a result of the war in Ukraine.
Indeed, in seven out of the 10 regions where Russia held parliamentary elections last year (including the “elections” held in the four Ukrainian territories annexed by Russia), the LDPR came in second place after the ruling United Russia party. This was true even in places where the Communist Party previously had strong support bases, such as in the Ivanov and Arkhangelsk regions. One of Meduza’s sources close to the Putin administration said that if it hadn’t been for Russia’s national republics, the LDPR “would have achieved second party status in terms of party list elections.”
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“Here’s how they operated: they put the emphasis [on regional government-run social media pages] on Zhirinovsky, his words, his statements, and his supposed predictions. To this day, interest in Zhirinovsky is high. But this specific approach won’t work with Slutsky,” said a political strategist who worked for the authorities in one of Russia’s regions during the legislative assembly campaign.
Now the Putin administration has essentially the same goal for the presidential election: to weaken the Communists, demonstratively stripping them of their “second party” status. “[Communist Party leader Gennady] Zyuganov refused to take part, and this caused some slight disappointment [for the Kremlin] in terms of voter turnout. The impact on his party was not positive. And that’s something that can be used,” said a political strategist who works with the Putin administration’s political bloc.
Both the political strategist and his colleague who works with the Kremlin said they doubt that Slutsky will be able to come in second in the presidential race without the help of electoral fraud. “He only has a chance if they correct [the results],” the strategist said. “Or if Kharitonov turns out to be extremely unappealing to the electorate. In general, the latter is a distinct possibility.”
Both sources said that the Kremlin is not planning to rig the vote in Slutsky’s favor, at least at this point: “What they’re counting on right now is an increase in [Slutsky’s] approval rating and ineffective campaigns from the other establishment candidates.”
Meduza sent the LDPR’s press service a request for comment, but had not heard back as of this article’s publication.