Dec. 18 (UPI) -- Russia's 2018 presidential campaign formally began on Monday, with President Vladimir Putin currently holding a sizable lead in polls over 22 other candidates.
The Federation Council, Russia's upper Parliament, set the election date for March 18. Candidates in the 90-day campaign must now submit documents of candidacy to the Central Election Commission.
Parties represented in Russian Parliament must present candidacy petitions with at least 100,000 signatures. Independent candidates must have at least 3000,000 signatures supporting a presidential bid.
Earlier this month, Putin announced his plan to run for a fourth six-year term. He said he will run as an independent candidate instead of seeking the nomination of his United Russia party.
Critics noted that the chosen election date coincides with the four-year anniversary of a treaty, declared illegal by most countries, formally annexing the Crimean peninsula to Russia. The annexation was widely popular in Russia, and some believe the date was chosen to promote Putin's re-election, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Poll results last week by Moscow's Levada Center indicate Putin has 61 percent support. Of competitors for the presidency, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhironovsky has 8 percent and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has 6 percent. Others have 1 percentage point or less.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a critic of Putin's, was declared ineligible to run by the election committee, which cited his financial crimes conviction. Navalny has said the conviction was politically motivated.