Top Democrats in the US may be lining up for the chance to run against President George W. Bush in November, but in Russia, most opposition leaders seem reluctant to challenge incumbent President Vladimir Putin in a vote slated for March 14.
Some observers say nothing is amiss in this picture: It's simply that Mr. Putin's overwhelming approval ratings of about 80 percent have led serious contenders to abandon the field to marginal candidates - although two might surprise observers by putting up a spirited fight. Putin's popularity is based on "the good results of his presidential term," says Sergei Markov, director, Institute for Political Studies, a Kremlin- affiliated think tank. "The economy is on the rise, and this is a stable trend; salaries and pensions are paid on time, and they being are raised regularly. Living standards are improving. The chain of political crises has ended."
Other experts worry, however, that under Putin, Russia's democratic system has been stifled by Kremlin overmanagement and is slipping back into a Soviet-style farce, in which there is an appearance of free voting but no genuine choice. "You can divide the candidates into two groups: The winner, Putin, and then all the rest, who will be like background dancers for Putin," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "Our political life has been replaced a ritual of installing the leader. We don't need any politicians for this; this is a job for stage directors."
Ten candidates, including Putin, have registered for the race. But some who lack the backing of a parliamentary party are liable to be weeded out if they fail to meet a Jan. 28 deadline to submit 2 million signatures required for nomination.
The contenders include a couple of controversial business tycoons who might be seeking a candidate's immunity from prosecution, a clutch of symbolic standard bearers for opposition parties, a few unknowns, and the Speaker of parliament's upper house, Sergei Mironov, who acknowledges that his main goal is to support his friend, Vladimir Putin. "When a leader who is trusted goes into battle, he must not be left alone," Mr. Mironov told journalists.
Two outspoken contenders could add spice to the mix, however. Sergei Glazyev, a left-wing economist who favors taxing the rich and restoring state guidance over the economy, has been a rising political star since his movement, Motherland, won a surprise 10 percent of the vote in December parliamentary elections. Irina Khakamada, a leading liberal who is running without the backing of her party, the Union of Right Forces, is a fierce critic of the Kremlin's authoritarian drift, ambiguous commitment to market reform, and continuing war in Chechnya.
But virtually all of Russia's traditional opposition heavyweights have chosen to sit this election out. Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, who won a healthy 30 percent of the vote when he ran against Putin in 2000, has tipped a little-known member of the near-defunct Agrarian Party, Nikolai Kharitonov, to carry the pro-Communist banner this time around. Russia's best-known liberal, Grigory Yavlinsky, who has run in every previous post-Soviet election, bowed out saying that "free, equal and politically competitive elections are impossible" this time. Even flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has sent his bodyguard, a former boxer named Oleg Malyshkin, to be his standard-bearer.
"[The main opposition leaders] know that the best guarantee of their continued survival in Russia's new political climate is to stay on good terms with the Kremlin," says Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the Institute for Globalization Studies in Moscow, a left-leaning think tank. "They prefer to abstain, even if it means public disgrace, than to risk the wrath of the Kremlin by standing against Putin."
Putin's dominance was evident in December's parliamentary elections, which gave the pro-Kremlin United Russia party control of two-thirds of the State Duma's seats. In the new Duma's first session last week, United Russia voted itself the chairmanship of all 29 parliamentary committees.
A December opinion poll by the state-run VTsIOM agency found that 61 percent of Russians credit Putin with improving Russia's international standing, while 56 percent believe his policies have brought better living standards. In a survey by the nonstate ROMIR public opinion agency, 37 percent of respondents said they "fully trust" Putin, and another 45 percent said they are "more likely to trust him than not."
"People today cannot see any alternative to Putin," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of Panorama, an independent think tank. "And they're not going to see any alternatives, because none are being shown," he adds. Mr. Pribylovsky says Putin's popular image is a product of state- controlled television as well as relatively good economic times, based on high global prices for Russia's main export, oil.
In response to the opposition's bleak prospects this time around, a group of leading Russian liberals, including chess champion Garry Kasparov, journalists Yuliya Latynina and Yevgeny Kiselyov, and ex-Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, set up a committee this month with the stated purpose of working for fair elections - in 2008.
"The key task of our committee is the election of a president representing civil society rather than an heir chosen by Putin," says the group's cochair, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov.
• Olga Podolskaya in Moscow contributed to this report.