Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has dismissed Russia's presidential election in March as nothing more than the "reappointment" of Vladimir Putin.
Navalny has urged Russians to boycott the vote, arguing that it is rigged, and is now noting even the most inconspicuous signs of possible electioneering.
For example, the layout of the ballot papers.
The Central Election Commission announced the ballot on February 8, the same day it announced that eight candidates had been officially registered to run in the March 18 election.
Navalny posted an image of the ballot on his Twitter account that shows the eight candidates listed alphabetically, as the independent TV channel Dozhd and other media note.
However, Putin’s slot appears to be smack dab in the center. Furthermore, his bio is by far the briefest of all the candidates, appearing to set him apart, optically at least, from all the others.
"Even just the appearance of the ballot and its layout is one more reason not to go to the polls. It's just a disgrace. Putin's reelection. Do not participate in this. Boycott. Voters strike," Navalny writes.
Ella Pamfilova, the chief of the election commission, shrugged off suggestions the ballot had been tinkered with to favor Putin.
“Everything was done exactly according to the law. He simply has a shorter title than the others. So, there’s nothing more to write,” Pamfilova said, according to TASS.
Russians and others have taken to social media to poke fun at the ballot.
Roman Fedoseev, an editor at the muckraking Russian news site Slon.ru, writes on Twitter: “Boy, where is Putin, I don’t see anything at all, it’s not very clear. Such a complicated ballot.”
Someone calling himself Genocide of the Eclairs notes on Twitter that “all the other candidates have full biographies and only Putin’s is so modest: the czar, simply the czar.”
Artem Deryagin said he was expecting something else altogether.
“I thought Putin’s last name would at least be highlighted with a bright-colored frame encircling it, or a little arrow pointing to it. I don’t know.”
Viktor Kozhuhar says “Putin even outplayed all the fools here.”
In reporting news of the ballot, the Meduza news portal said in its headline that “someone on it stands out,” adding a winking emoticon at the end.
It notes the ballot conforms with Russian law, with the candidates listed alphabetically, including biographical data, although Meduza points out that Putin’s bio is much briefer than the others.
Arguably Putin’s most serious challenger, Navalny was barred from running due to a fraud conviction that he says was retribution for his political agitation and exposure of corruption in high places.
He has dismissed the vote as the "reappointment" of Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999.
With the Kremlin controlling the levers of political power nationwide after years of steps to suppress dissent and marginalize political opponents, it is virtually certain that the election will hand Putin a new six-year term.
Political commentators say Putin, 65, is eager for a high turnout to strengthen his mandate in what could be his last stint in the Kremlin, as he would be constitutionally barred from seeking a third straight term in 2024.