Though more than a dozen parties are on the ballot for Russia's parliamentary election Sunday, one would hardly know it. The pro-Kremlin United Russia (UR) party, whose standing has jumped more than 25 percent since President Vladimir Putin announced he would head its candidate list last month, could fairly win up to two-thirds of votes for the 450-seat State Duma, according to most polls.
But in what some experts say may be the least democratic election since the USSR collapsed, boycotted by Europe's election-monitoring body, the campaign has been marred by complaints from opposition parties of official interference, seizure of campaign literature, the exclusion of some candidates from the ballot, and the sidelining of independent Russian poll observers.
Over the past week, allegations have also surfaced, notably in an investigative report by the English-language Moscow Times, that voter coercion and outright fraud are being deployed to loft UR's vote to even greater-than-expected heights.
"On a scale of 1 to 100, the level of democracy in this campaign is zero," says Lilia Shibanova, head of Golos, Russia's only nationwide network of independent election monitors. "The laws are being systematically violated. Officials at all levels are involved in agitation on behalf of a single party. There is direct pressure on citizens [to vote a particular way], especially at the municipal level."
Putin's personal stake in the election
Appearing on national TV for the first time in his new role as chief candidate for UR, Mr. Putin on Thursday asked Russians to pin their faith on him.
"The country is entering a period of complete renewal of the top legislative and executive power," said Putin. "In this situation, it is especially important for us to secure continuity of the course and fulfill all obligations to people. I am asking you to go and vote for the United Russia party," he added. It was the same message he has delivered many times since announcing his candidacy with UR in early October, but the first time that UR actually paid for the Putin's public endorsement.
Constitutionally required to step down as president when his second term expires in March, Putin's apparent bid to carve out a new leadership role for himself hinges in part on UR's success Sunday.
Though publication of polls is forbidden in the last week before voting, the latest surveys suggest that UR is the only party other than the Communist Party likely to make the 7 percent cut for entering parliament. Still, experts say that Putin's personal stake in the campaign has created a drive to bring UR's vote up to levels that reflect Putin's approval rating of more than 80 percent.
"Under normal circumstances, a simple majority might suffice for UR," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, an independent journal. "But this election has been turned into a referendum on confirming Putin's future, so there's pressure for more."
According to the Moscow Times, unnamed election officials and opposition campaign workers interviewed by the paper alleged that systematic efforts are afoot to inflate UR's vote by fraudulent means, such as altering voter records.
It also detailed complaints that UR is utilizing its vast network of semi-official contacts to ensure that factory directors, military commanders, hospital administrators, and other authorities will "supervise" the voting in their polls to ensure a pro-UR outcome.
Russia's Central Elections Commission has repeatedly denied all such allegations. Putin this week pledged that the polls will be free and fair.
"We know the value of authentic democracy and are interested in conducting honest, maximally transparent and open elections," Putin told a group of foreign diplomats.
Elections under Gorbachev were fairer
Ironically, some experts say, Russia's most open and competitive polls were held in the late Soviet era, as the country was just emerging from Communism.
"The highest point was [parliamentary] elections in 1990," under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, says Alexander Kynev, an expert with the independent Foundation for Information Politics in Moscow. "The old regime was demoralized; there were no political manipulations and there was an open field in those polls," he says.
Even in 1993, after former President Boris Yeltsin forcibly disbanded Russia's first freely elected parliament and rewrote the country's Constitution to vest the lion's share of power in the Kremlin, opposition parties were still able to win major shares of the seats in the newly created Duma.
In addition, say experts, elections were more democratic earlier in Putin's tenure.
"The first elections under Putin [in 2003] were more open and competitive than the present campaign," says Mikhail Afanasyev, an analyst with Nikkolo M, a Moscow-based political consultancy. Four years ago, Russia's two liberal parties, Yabloko and Union of Right Forces (SPS), were squeezed out of parliament, and UR garnered a two-thirds majority of the seats. Sweeping revisions to election laws have since eliminated local constituency races, tightened restrictions on political parties and raised the bar for entry into the Duma.
"Today it's clear that the election is going according to a previously prepared script, parties have been selected in advance, and the whole system is rather artificial," says Mr. Afanasyev.
Disregard for international opinion
Last week the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe declined to send a contingent of observers after what it called systematic delays in obtaining Russian visas for its delegates. In a tough speech this week, Putin suggested that US meddling was behind the OSCE pullout.
Independent Russian groups trying to monitor the voting have faced similar problems. Golos, which receives some funding from USAID, a US government agency, says it's been subjected to intense official pressures, including a criminal investigation that forced its branch in Samara, a Volga region, to close until after the upcoming March presidential polls. Ms. Shibanova says the organization has been pilloried in the media, and its regional activists are often called in for "talks" with the FSB security service.
Unlike past Russian elections, no independent exit polls will be conducted during Sunday's voting. Instead, surveys will be done by the state-run Center for Public Opinion (VTsIOM), the Kremlin-connected Public Opinion Foundation, and activists from Nashi Vybori, a branch of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi.
"Russian authorities are making it very clear that they don't care what the world thinks about our elections," says Mr. Lukyanov. "In the past we were trying to meet international standards but now, according to the Kremlin, we have created our own Russian model of democracy – and it's none of the West's business."