Russians voted in parliamentary polls on Sunday, with parties loyal to President Vladimir Putin set to maintain their dominance as the Kremlin sought to make a show of eliminating vote fraud after mass opposition 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.
"The campaign wasn\’t interesting. They all promise a lot but they\’re treading a familiar path," said 70-year-old Alexander, voting in Moscow on Sunday morning for the small Pensioners\’ Party for Justice.
In the second city of Saint Petersburg, 47-year-old Dmitry Pribytkov called the vote "absolutely predictable," but said that "it\’s my country and I must express my opinion. At least they ask for it — at least formally."
Polling stations for the vote — which also elects regional leaders in some areas — opened at 8 am across the country\’s 11 time zones and will close in Russia\’s European exclave Kaliningrad at 1800 GMT Sunday.
For the first time residents of the Russia-annexed Black Sea peninsula of Crimea are among the roughly 110 million voters eligible to cast their ballots for the 450-seat Duma, in polls condemned as illegal by Ukraine.
By 11am Moscow time (0700 GMT), the turnout nationwide was more than 10 percent, said the country\’s deputy election chief Nikolai Bulayev.
The ruling party 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.
On Saturday, Putin endorsed United Russia, telling journalists: "I created United Russia as a party, so there is no commentary needed here."
In a bid to bolster this vote\’s legitimacy the scandal-tainted former election chief was replaced by a human rights advocate, Ella Pamfilova, who has looked to eliminate the most blatant cases of electoral fraud.
On Sunday morning, she said she had received reports of so-called "cruise voting" — organisers driving voters with specially marked documents round multiple polling stations — in the city of Barnaul in Siberia\’s Altai region and if confirmed, the commission would call for criminal prosecution and "consider annulling the elections."
In most regions, "everything is going normally," she added.
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 seizure of Crimea and subsequent stand-off with the West to boost its popularity.
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.