(photo credit: AP)
Russia votes on Sunday with great official fanfare, but doubtful enthusiasm, in a parliamentary election so dominated by President Vladimir Putin's party that the opposition is virtually invisible.
The only question about the vote for the State Duma being debated much is whether the results will bring the United Russia party merely a big majority of the 450 seats or a gargantuan share. Recent opinion polls suggest the party could win up to 80 percent of seats.
The vote is the first national ballot under new election laws that have been widely criticized as marginalizing opposition forces. All the seats will be awarded proportionately to how much of the vote a party receives; in previous elections, half the seats were chosen among candidates contesting a specific district, which allowed a few mavericks to get in.
The new laws also say a party must receive at least 7% of the national vote to get any seats - up from the previous 5%. A poll by the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center in mid-November showed the Communists and two other parties hovering near the cutoff point.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, claim authorities have confiscated campaign materials and that the managers of halls have refused to rent them out for opposition meetings. Police have violently broken up opposition rallies - most recently in Moscow and St. Petersburg last weekend - and national television gives the parties hardly any coverage.
In contrast, Putin's speeches to supporters were broadcast in full and repeated throughout evening newscasts. On Thursday, the noon news program on the country's largest TV network led with a paid Putin address to the nation in which he called on voters to cast ballots for United Russia. It was repeated on other channels throughout the day, raising criticism that he was misusing state resources for open campaigning.
"It meets none of the criteria of a free, fair and democratic election. In effect, it is not even an election," Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Putin, wrote in a commentary for the Cato Institute think-tank.
Saturday, by law, was a day in which campaigning was prohibited.
With the competition stifled and United Russia generally popular due to Russia's economic boom, many of the 107 million eligible to vote could find apathy and inertia weakening any desire to brave winter weather to go cast ballots.
"It's clear that the current election will only stabilize the interests for one man, who has already run the country for a long time," said Musa Isayev, a 40-year-old resident of Grozny, the capital of the troubled republic of Chechnya.
There's no minimum turnout needed for the election to be valid - another change from previous elections - but a low number of voters could undermine Putin's claim that Russia is developing into a true democracy, albeit one with only passing resemblance to Western democracies.
Authorities throughout Russia's 11 time zones appear determined to ensure a sizable turnout, through pressure, persuasion and even presents. One region is offering young voters passes to pools and sports facilities; another instituted a contest in which first-time voters could win mobile phones; yet another says new housing will be built in whichever village shows the most "mature" turnout.
Teachers, doctors and other workers have widely complained that their bosses are ordering them to vote - usually with the implication that they should vote for United Russia.
With Russia showing an increasingly assertive military policy and with foreign hunger growing for Russia's oil, gas and minerals, the election is of strong interest overseas. But international organizations are not able to watch as closely as they'd hoped.
The elections monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, regarded in the West as the most authoritative assessor of whether an election is free and fair, canceled plans to send observers for the Duma vote. It said Russia had delayed granting visas for so long that it would be unable to conduct a meaningful assessment of election preparations.
Russia has criticized OSCE observations elsewhere in the former Soviet Union as supporting massive protests that forced leadership changes, but it denied that it was impeding operations in Russia. Putin claimed the pullout was initiated by the United States in an effort to discredit the elections and his government.
A total of about 300 observers from scattered international organizations were to monitor the voting, including some from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of Russia, China and ex-Soviet Central Asian republics.
Disdain for the West has been one of the dominating themes of the election, with Putin last month calling his opponents "foreign-fed jackals" and warning that Russia won't tolerate meddling from abroad.
United Russia has cast the election as essentially a referendum on Putin's nearly eight years in office. Many of its campaign banners that festoon the capital read "Moscow is voting for Putin." Putin is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third consecutive term as president in March. He has said that a strong showing for the party Sunday would give him the moral right to ensure that politicians continue his policies - an indication that he intends to retain strong influence in the country, though through what method is unclear.
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