In Russian, there's a phrase which can be literally translated as 'a technical candidate' that refers to people who are allowed to elections only to serve as, put bluntly, election props that create a false impression of multiple competing candidates when, in fact, it's only one pro-government candidate and a few no-names no-one ever heard of. Don't confuse it with the similar but different term 'spoiler candidates' who are allowed to the ballot to poach some votes from undesirable opposition candidates (for example, by having the same last name, or a similar party name, or by having a similar alleged ideology but no real electorate). I've also come across the term 'a stalking horse candidate', but I don't have a clear idea what it means and it doesn't seem it's what I'm looking for. What do you say instead of 'a technical candidate' in English?

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    If you don't mind, what is the Russian term and pronunciation? English often adopts such words. For example: 'apparatchik' or 'troika'.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 20:37
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    'A technical candidate', as I said. In Russian, it's 'технический кандидат' (you can look at their pronunciations on Wiktionary: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/… en.wiktionary.org/wiki/…) Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 21:12
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    In the United States, they're called "Libertarian"...
    – Coomie
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 5:51
  • @Coomie I think Libertarians act more as spoiler candidates.
    – JiK
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 14:52
  • I san imagine "ringer" being used for this, although it's not really a match for the dictionary definition. Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 16:53

9 Answers 9



Token opposition is the closest English idiom for one or more candidates who are on the ballot for mere superficial appearance. However, native speakers would be able to pick up the intended meaning behind calling someone a technical candidate.

Other related terms with varying shades of meaning are listed below in decreasing order of specificity or relevance to the scenario from your question. Read beyond the divider for further explanation of each.

  • Sham Candidate
  • Nominal Candidate
  • Sacrificial Lamb
  • Phantom Candidate
  • Paper Candidate
  • Fringe Candidate
  • Perennial Candidate (or Perennial Opponent)
  • Spoiler or Protest Candidate
  • Window dressing

Token Opposition

The adjective form of token means

Done for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture.

‘cases like these often bring just token fines from magistrates’

so token opposition is present only to make the process look legitimate.

Opposition is a mass noun or uncountable noun, possibly a tricky case for students of English.

In English, mass nouns are characterized by the fact that they cannot be directly modified by a numeral without specifying a unit of measurement, and that they cannot combine with an indefinite article (a or an).

This means the following are ungrammatical.

Bob was a token opposition.

The token oppositions in the election held up their signs anyway.

The PM faced three token oppositions.

Correct examples include

Bob was the token opposition.

Jim and Betty were Susie’s token opposition.

If you want to use it in count noun form, consider token opponent as in

The frontrunner declined the invitation to debate her token opponent.

Note that the definition of token includes

Denoting a member of a minority group included in an otherwise homogeneous set of people in order to give the appearance of diversity.

‘the patronizing treatment of the token Middle Eastern character’

so referring to someone from a racial minority as a token candidate or even just a token (as opposed to a token opponent) may be perceived as bigoted or xenophobic.

Sham Candidate

The type of election you described in your question is called a sham election, so someone slated for election in the technical sense only could be called a sham candidate or sham opponent. Used as an adjective, sham applies broadly.

Bogus; false.

‘a clergyman who arranged a sham marriage’

A sham election is sometimes referred to as a show election, but the meaning behind show candidate or show opponent may confuse your audience because a show pony looks pretty but is no good for hard work.

Nominal Candidate

The adjective nominal has a similar meaning to technical: in name only. The meaning of nominal candidate will likely be clear to your audience and is less cynical, for when you want to convey a neutral point of view.

Sacrificial Lamb

When the outcome is not rigged but the opponent still has almost zero likelihood of winning, the colorful metaphor sacrificial lamb applies. Given a longstanding and highly popular incumbent, for example, opposing parties may “fill the ballot” by nominating sacrificial lambs whom they do not expect to even be competitive. This way, the party in power must face some opposition rather than running unopposed. Wikipedia notes

In politics, a sacrificial lamb candidate is a candidate chosen to contest an election despite the fact that he or she has little chance of victory. The political party thus appoints the person as a sort of “sacrifice” to the stronger opponent.

In some cases, fielding a sacrificial lamb candidate can serve as an opportunity for the party to be more creative in choosing a candidate than would normally be considered acceptable in a closely contested race. Alan Keyes and Geraldine A. Ferraro are examples in American politics. In 1956, Adlai Stevenson was considered a sacrificial lamb candidate for president against Dwight Eisenhower. In 2004, Howard Mills was considered a sacrificial lamb candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York against Chuck Schumer.

Paper Candidate

A paper candidate is a similar term and also more matter-of-fact and less cynical.

In a representative democracy, the term paper candidate is often given to a candidate who stands for a political party in an electoral division where the party in question enjoys only low levels of support. Although the candidate has little chance of winning, a major party will normally make an effort to ensure it has its name on the ballot paper in every constituency. In two-party systems, a paper candidate may also be known as token opposition.

The idea is that the candidate’s name is on the piece of paper only and is similar in meaning to paper tiger.

Phantom Candidate

A phantom is a ghost, and as an adjective it refers to anything illusory. Phantom candidate is similar in meaning to paper candidate but does not carry any connotation of a rigged election. Instead, a phantom candidate leaves little evidence of his existence. Whereas a paper candidate may have a website, print signs and stickers, distribute literature, and even have a staff, a phantom candidate is barely there at all.

Fringe Candidate

A fringe candidate is one who has little chance of winning because of positions that have little popular support. Fringe candidates may come from major or minor parties. Major-party candidates may contemptuously disparage each other’s “fringe” views in attempts to talk down their support. A major party’s establishment may knowingly put up a fringe candidate as a sacrificial lamb merely to fill the ballot or perhaps hoping for overwhelming defeat: for example, to stamp out a favorite issue of a noisy minority within the party by blaming the issue for lopsided defeat at the polls.

Because fringe is charged, using it may cause your audience to perceive bias against the candidate or at least the views.

Perennial Candidate

A perennial candidate is one who appears on the ballot regularly with no wins and almost no voteshare. The perennial candidate tends to have fringe views or other low likeability. The party tolerates the situation because it at least fills the ballot.

This term has a neutral point of view. If the same candidate shows up over and over in sham elections, referring to the token opposition from outside the electoral jurisdiction in question as a perennial candidate may be taken as evenhanded or as bitingly ironic.

Spoiler or Protest Candidate

Of the two, protest candidate is broader and more objective. A spoiler is someone who enters the race with the intention of causing another candidate to lose or who is judged after the fact to have been a cause of defeat, so the election is definitely competitive. A spoiler is a protest candidate but not necessarily the other way around.

A protest candidate and the major-party or mainstream candidate in jeopardy of being spoiled will perhaps surprisingly have many political positions in common. The protest candidate’s purpose is to give voters a way to show that the mainstream candidate is inauthentic or not bold enough in promoting their shared views. For example, Jill Stein was the Green Party nominee for U.S. President in 2016. The Greens are a far-left party, so Dr. Stein was widely viewed as a protest candidate against Hillary Clinton. In the coming 2020 U.S. election, Donald Trump is likely to face one or more protest candidates who will challenge him for the Republican nomination by asserting that Trump is not sufficiently conservative, either socially or fiscally, and thus not true enough to Republican values. Candidates from the Constitution Party and Libertarian Party are commonly seen as protest candidates against Republicans.

In 1992, billionaire Ross Perot ran for president as an independent, i.e., affiliated with no party. Important issues for him were balancing the federal budget and offshoring of American jobs. He entered the race with the intention of winning. In the end, he captured about 19% of the popular vote and continues to be blamed by Republicans for spoiling the re-election of George H. W. Bush in favor of Bill Clinton.

Window Dressing

Window dressing is a kitschy description that applies broadly to any surface-only appearance.

An adroit but superficial or misleading presentation of something, designed to create a favourable impression.

‘the government's effort has amounted to little more than window dressing’

Paper candidates, sacrificial lambs, and the like are all forms of window dressing. The term does imply at least a level of deception, so it would be fair to call token opposition or sham candidates window dressing.

  • In 1994 I was a paper candidate for the Libertarian Party in San Francisco, California, so yes, at least some Americans do know the term. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 0:32
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    @SergeyZolotarev Sparring implies practice or preparation, so referring to token opposition as a sparring partner in a primary election would be more appropriate than for a general election. Any candidate who challenges Donald Trump for the Republican nomination risks being seen as a mere sparring partner. As heavily favored as Barack Obama was over John McCain and Mitt Romney, they were not sparring partners. In those cases, you may have said the election was a formality.
    – Greg Bacon
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 6:48
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    Native US speaker with only average knowledge of this area, "token" is the only one I would understand out of context. Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 17:30
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    "Window dressing" - that's funny. I prefer to eat my windows plain. :-? Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 3:41
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    And note that winning isn't the whole picture. My father was once one of those sacrificial lamb candidates--against an incumbent who had gotten 80% in the last election there was no chance, but by being in the race he kept his opponent from helping other candidates and thus helped the party. It wasn't about an illusion of competition. Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 6:07

These are sometimes referred to as "phantom candidates," as in the linked article. As James K suggests, though, this is an unusual enough term that it is defined in every text in which I've seen it used.

Typically an election so one-sided and controlled by the government is referred to as a sham election (or show election), so sham candidate may also make some sense.

  • Could you explain what does it mean, 'they’re just on the ballot to make sure that any real challengers are relegated to "ballot Siberia"'? What does 'ballot Siberia' mean? Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 1:38
  • @SergeyZolotarev I'm pretty sure it's a joke referring to the Soviet practice of exiling dissidents to Siberia.
    – nick012000
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 6:52
  • But what does it have to do with the US? What's the purpose of "phantom candidates" in the US? Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 13:34
  • @SergeyZolotarev Specifically in local elections where one party has control, 'phantom candidates' may be used to prevent challengers from other factions of the party from getting on the ballot at all. It's used to maintain the status quo and power of whoever is in charge of the local political machine.
    – Katy
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 15:02
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    The last part of Katy's second paragraph is the correct answer.
    – Fattie
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 18:58

This is not common in England or the USA, where most elections are genuinely competitive.

A real stalking horse is a horse that a hunter hides behind when stalking animals. A "stalking horse" candidate is a slightly different situation. In a political party there might be elections for the leader. An opponent of the leader doesn't want to challenge the leader openly because the opponent loses they could face revenge. So the opponent gets another person to challenge the leader. This other person is expected to lose, but if they are moderately successful, then the opponent can come out of hiding. If they are very unsuccessful, then the opponent can stay anonymous.

There is no simple term in English for such a candidate as you describe. You might call them "puppet candidates" (if they are under the control of the main candidate) or "fake candidates". You could even use "technical candidates". But whichever you choose, you would need to explain the context to the reader:

Putin was challenged only by three "technical candidates" (relative unknowns whose only job was to give the impression of a democratic contest). None of the technical candidates won more than 5% in the polls.

In this example I use quote marks to indicate that this is a new term. I give a short defintion in the brackets. I can then use my term in later sentences.

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    I've been thinking I could use 'sham candidates'. Can I? Your suggestion, while being valid (it's what I opted for in the first place), is slightly problematic as no sense in the Lexico entry for 'technical' is even close to what I'm trying to say (lexico.com/en/definition/technical) Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 23:17
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    "sham" is also fine, but again, you would need to define the term when you first use it: "Putin was opposed only by three "sham candidates" (relative unknowns...)"
    – James K
    Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 23:20
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    Why should I explain it? Isn't it according to the common usage of the word 'sham'? Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 1:30
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    Additionally, what do you think about 'paper candidates', as someone in the comments suggested? Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 13:39
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    @SergeyZolotarev You should explain it because the average reader won't understand what you mean; "sham candidate" could just as easily mean "candidate who doesn't even exist except on paper" or just "candidate the writer thinks is a joke".
    – Hearth
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 16:04

A further option which came to me would be a "Paper Candidate"

"In a representative democracy, the term paper candidate is often given to a candidate who stands for a political party in an electoral division where the party in question enjoys only low levels of support."

As a native English speaker this is what I first thought of when reading your question. In the UK it basically means "a candidate with no chance of winning"

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    To me, “paper” implies not only hopelessness but lack of effort. I was a candidate twice; I did a lot more campaigning the first time than the second. (“Would you be willing to run again?” “Um…” “I'll rephrase it. Would you be willing to stand again?”) I'd say I was a paper candidate the second time but not the first. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 0:36
  • This should be the accepted answer in the context of UK candidates, at least. What's more, it doesn't normalise violence against animals :)
    – Max
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 9:21

Not specific to elections but the term "window dressing" is for:

Things that are of no real importance and are said or done in order to make an attractive effect.

Cambridge Dictionary: Window Dressing

So if the other candidates are not going to be important to the election (through either vote-share or discussion of their policies) and are only there to give an appearance of legitimate democracy then you could say that:

The other candidates are just window dressing.


A general term (not restricted to election candidates) is an "also-ran":


This term originally arose from horse racing, where the place-getters (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) would be named, and then the remainder would be described as "also ran", to indicate that they took part but didn't win.

Despite the past tense of "ran", this term can also be to describe anticipated future outcomes. That is, you could describe someone as an "also-ran" in advance of an election, meaning that you believe they will have no chance of winning.

The meaning of this term when used for election candidates would be clear in many Commonwealth English settings, but I don't know if it is used in American English, for example. But it doesn't imply anything about the intentions of the candidate: they may be genuine participants in the democratic process, despite not having any viable chance of winning.

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    This is used in American English, too. Important note: "Also-ran" is a countable noun, and follows grammatical rules for nouns, not verbs. It doesn't change for tense, but it can have a plural form, article, etc. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 17:22

As another option. I'd understand what someone said if they described the candidate as a stooge.


It is interesting nobody mention: third party candidate

Especially in an american-english context this would be the word.

  • Welcome to English Language Learners! If another Republican challenges Trump for the nomination, that candidate would be token opposition but not a third-party candidate.
    – Greg Bacon
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 15:16
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    A third-party candidate isn't chosen to give an illusion of a fair election. Third-party candidates typically are trying to affect the outcome of the election, even if they themselves don't win. An example is Ross Perot who ran for US president in 1992 and, after attracting significant support, ultimately threw his support behind the ultimate winner, Bill Clinton. Many people think that Perot was a significant reason why George HW Bush lost. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 17:25
  • I am aware this will be a low rated answer, but I still think the phrase "third party candidate" should be mentioned based on the russian question. Yes, there are plenty of elections, like primaries, that does not have third-party candidates and I am aware that like russia then third party candidates themselves think they can win. Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 8:18

I do not believe there really is an equivalent concept in the US. I also disagree with the answer that states that this is because elections in the US are usually competitive -- in reality the vast majority of congressional races are not competitive in the general election due to gerrymandering (the real competition is winning the primary, which is why most politicians in the US have much more fear of the extremes in the base than the moderates). Further, I do not believe 'phantom candidates' or 'paper candidates' fit the OP's description. The purpose of those candidates is not to give the illusion of choice. Paper candidates, for example, exist as contingencies for if something unexpected happens. A massive wave election could occur, the other candidates in the race could drop out for whatever reason, and so on. Phantom candidates exist for the purposes of election metagaming.

Candidates in the US run for many reasons. Usually, it's because they have ideas they want to implement and believe they can win. They believe they are the best person for the position. Sometimes, people will run even if they don't believe they can win. Take Bernie Sanders in 2016 for example. At least at the beginning of the primary, Sanders was not running to win -- he was running to push the ideas in the democratic party (and Hillary Clinton) to the left. To move the party to more socialized healthcare, and so on.

You could also imagine someone running for the purpose of ruining someone else's chances. There has been a lot of discussion on whether Tulsi Gabbard will run as an independent to throw the election to Trump.

But I cannot think of a single example where someone has run simply to give voters the illusion of choice. In fact, because of the aforementioned gerrymandering there are indeed many elections in the US where there is only 1 major candidate (and sometimes literally only 1 candidate without any minor parties) on the ballot, and the results of the election are essentially known before they even occur.

The types of candidates described in the OP are relegated to countries where there is de jure democracy but de facto one party rule. The point of such candidates is to legitimize the victory of the leader, and there really is no such equivalent in US (and most western countries') elections.

  • Note: I wouldn't go so far as to say that this has never happened in the US, but rather if you were to gather expert political strategists and pundits into a room, I believe they would struggle to come up with an example of it. Due to the rarity, and perhaps non-existence of such examples, I don't think these experts would have any agreement on what such candidates would be called.
    – eps
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 18:38
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    Your last paragraph indicates that you have never observed a British General Election. This kind of candidate is extremely common, especially in the constituencies of the sitting party leaders.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 11:33

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