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