MOSCOW – Russians began voting in parliamentary polls late Saturday, with parties loyal to President Vladimir Putin set to maintain their dominance despite the Kremlin making a show of cleaning up the vote after mass protests last time around.
The nationwide elections follow several years of tumult that have seen the country annex Crimea from Ukraine, lurch into its worst stand-off with the West since the Cold War, plunge into economic crisis and launch a military campaign in Syria.
But Putin’s ratings remain high at around 80 percent and, with the Kremlin in tight control of the media and public discourse, authorities appear to be banking on a trouble-free vote paving the way for him to cruise to a fourth term as president at polls in 2018.
Despite the dramatic events that have rocked the country, the campaign for the State Duma — widely seen as a rubber-stamp body that has slavishly toed the Kremlin line — was dubbed the most boring in recent memory by observers and high levels of voter apathy suggest that turnout could be low.
Polling stations for the vote — which also sees regional leaders elected in some areas — opened in the most easternly region of Kamchatka at 2000 GMT Saturday and will close in Russia’s European exclave Kaliningrad at 1800 GMT Sunday.
For the first time residents on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea are among the roughly 110 million voters eligible to cast their ballots for the 450-seat Duma, stirring fury from Ukraine.
“I call on you to come to polling stations, to vote, to express your position,” Putin said in a final appeal to voters last week.
“Make your choice, vote for Russia.”
On Saturday, he endorsed ruling party United Russia despite campaigning being banned on the day before the vote.
“I created United Russia as a party, so there is no commentary needed here,” he said when asked by journalists who he is going to vote for.
United Russia looks set to scoop the largest chunk of the vote ahead of others loyal to the Kremlin like the Communists and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
– Spectre of protests –
Looming large for the authorities is the memory of mass protests that followed the last legislative vote in 2011, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets over evidence of ballot stuffing in the biggest challenge to Putin’s dominance since he took charge in 2000.
Ingredients for discontent are there again now, with the country mired in the longest recession of Putin’s 16-year rule due to low oil prices and the Western sanctions over Ukraine.
But the Kremlin has cracked down on the right to demonstrate and stoked the nationalism unleashed by the 2014 seizure of Crimea and subsequent stand-off with the West to boost its popularity.
In a bid to bolster this vote’s legitimacy the scandal-tainted former election chief was replaced by a human rights advocate who has looked to eliminate the most blatant cases of electoral fraud.
“For the authorities it is important to preserve an air of decency,” Yekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration told AFP.
In a sign of official confidence, far more genuine opposition candidates have been permitted to take part than before, including some 20 funded by Putin’s arch-foe, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
But Putin’s opponents are weak and divided and, despite being given some TV airtime, they insist that the Kremlin’s near-total dominance means the vote can never be fair.
In addition, a change to the electoral system that means half of the deputies will now be chosen on a constituency basis looks likely to help boost United Russia as it funnelled state resources into the campaign.
The new softer approach from the Kremlin does not appear to have reached all parts of the vast country.
Rights groups say in the north Caucasus region of Chechnya all criticism of Kremlin-loyal strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — previously appointed directly by Putin — has been stamped out ruthlessly ahead of the first electoral test for his decade of iron-fisted rule.