MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he would seek re-election next year in a race he is poised to win easily, putting him on track to become the nation’s longest-serving ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Putin’s approval ratings regularly top 80 percent, making him all but certain to win the March election by a broad margin. While few doubted the 65-year-old leader would run, the delay in his declaring so fueled some conspiracy theories and was seen as the Kremlin’s political maneuvering.
The 65-year-old Russian leader’s potential rivals include several luckless candidates from past contests and a notable newcomer — TV host Ksenia Sobchak, 36, the daughter of Putin’s one-time boss.
The president chose to make his re-election announcement at the GAZ automobile factory in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. The factory is a symbol of Russian’s industrial might, and Putin found an enthusiastic audience in the blue-collar workers who make up the core of his base.
“I couldn’t find a better place and moment,” he said to massive applause at the plant. “Thank you for your support. I will run for president.”
For months, Putin fended off questions about his plans for 2018, fueling speculation about why he would not say if he would seek re-election. Some theorized he might step down and name a preferred successor.
The Kremlin has been worried about growing voter apathy, and the uncertainty over Putin’s plans seemed intended to encourage public interest in the race.
“It was necessary to ensure electoral mobilization,” Dmitry Orlov, a political consultant close to the Kremlin, said in televised remarks.
Putin has been in power in Russia since 2000. He served two presidential terms during 2000-2008, then shifted into the prime minister’s seat because of term limits. As prime minister, he still called the shots while his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, served as the placeholder president.
Medvedev had the president’s term extended to six years and then stepped down to let Putin reclaim the office in 2012. If Putin serves another six-year term, which would run through 2024, he would reach the milestone of having the longest tenure since Stalin, who ruled for nearly 30 years.
Earlier Wednesday, Putin was asked about his intentions at a meeting with young volunteers in Moscow. He said he would decide shortly, then showed up at the GAZ factory making his announcement.
The plant is one of the country’s most emblematic industrial giants. It was built during the Soviet industrialization drive in 1932 and has churned out millions of vehicles, from vans and military trucks to Volga sedans and luxury cars for the Soviet elite.
“Thank you for your work, for your attitude to your jobs, your factory, your city and your country!” Putin told factory workers. “I’m sure that together we will succeed.”
A stream of fawning comments from officials and lawmakers followed his declaration.
Chechnya’s regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, hailed the president’s announcement, saying on Instagram that only Putin can “resist a massive shameless and unprecedented” pressure by the West.
Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Putin’s decision helped end “anxiety and tensions in the society.”
The upper house is expected to authorize the start of formal election campaigning later this month.
Veterans of past campaigns — Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky — all have declared their intention to run. They will likely be joined by Sobchak, a well-known television host who is the daughter of the late St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who was Putin’s boss in the 1990s.
“I don’t trust a system where Putin makes all decisions,” said Sobchak, who also met with voters in Nizhny Novgorod Wednesday. “Let’s believe in our ability to change the situation.”
The most visible Putin foe, Alexei Navalny, also wants to join the race, even though a conviction he calls politically motivated bars him from running. He has organized a grassroots campaign and staged rallies across Russia to raise pressure on the government to allow him to run.
In a signal that the Kremlin isn’t going to budge, Navalny’s campaign chief, Leonid Volkov, last week was sentenced to a month in jail for staging an unauthorized rally in Nizhny Novgorod. Navalny himself spent 20 days in jail in October for organizing another rally.
“The best illustration of how elections work in Russia is my campaign chief Leonid Volkov sitting in jail just one kilometer (less than a mile) from the venue where Putin declared his bid,” Navalny tweeted.