Opinion polls in Russia show Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, heading for victory in the upcoming presidential election. He hopes to take the sting out of an urban protest movement which casts him as an authoritarian leader that rules through a corrupt political system.
› Vladimir Putin
The current prime minister
United Russia candidate
Previously served two terms as president
› Gennady Zyuganov
Russian Communist Party candidate
Currently second in the presidential race
The 67-year-old has fought and lost several previous presidential elections
› Vladimir Zhirinovsky
Liberal Democratic Party of Russia candidate
Has stood in presidential elections before
His percentage of the vote has been consistently lower than that of his party in parliamentary elections
› Mikhail Prokhorov
The only independent candidate
The billionaire began his political career last year
› Sergey Mironov
Fair Russia Party candidate
Putin brought him into his circle in 2000 by arranging for his election as speaker of the upper house of parliament
He lost his role as speaker in 2011
So, what chance do the other presidential contenders stand and do they have reason to call it an unfair election?
Last December, the Russian prime minister's political party, United Russia, performed poorly in parliamentary elections - losing more than 70 seats in the 450-member state Duma, the lower house of the federal assembly of Russia.
Suspicions of fraud emerged following exit polls that predicted an even wider defeat, striking a blow to democracy in Russia.
Another punch came when Putin said that he had planned all along to swap seats with President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012. This did not sit well with many young Russians who were raised with the hope of a democratic Russia, compelling them to take to the streets to voice their opposition over the past few weeks.
But on Thursday, tens of thousands attended a rally in support of the Russian prime minister. Some of them said they were forced or paid to attend. Others came from thousands of miles away. The carefully orchestrated display of patriotism and support was designed to show that Putin is not losing his grip.
And with the latest polls giving him 58% of the vote, he should have comfortably enough support to win the presidency in the first round.
At Thursday's rally, Putin had strong words for the outside forces he has long accused of meddling in Russian politics: "We will not let anyone interfere with our internal affairs. We will not let anyone impose their will on us because we have our own will."
The decision about who can run for president is determined to some extent by Russian electoral legislation.
Parties represented in parliament have the right to propose a candidate, while others need to collect two million signatures in support.
A significant number of candidates for the presidency have been rejected by the Russian central elections commission. Reasons for this range from not informing the commission about holding a meeting in due time to invalid signatures.
But five candidates have been successfully registered and will run for the presidency.
So, can Russians have a fair presidential election? Is Putin's victory a foregone conclusion? Will it be a decisive victory or will it go to a second round? And if it does go to a second round will that be considered a humiliation for Putin?
Joining Inside Story to discuss this are: Sergei Alexandrovich Markov, a Russian political analyst; Ilya Faybisovich, a political activist who helped to organise recent anti-Putin protests; and Vlad Strukov from the Department of German, Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Leeds.
Vladimir Putin facts:
- Putin became president in 2000 and was re-elected in 2004 for a second term
- Due to term limits, Putin stepped down as president in March 2008
- In December 2007, Putin announced Dmitry Medvedev as his preferred successor
- Medvedev succeeded Putin, gaining over 70% of the vote
- Medvedev and Putin have worked together for 17 years
- Putin's United Russia Party has dominated the Duma since 2003
- United Russia won 238 seats in parliamentary elections on December 4 - a sharp fall from the 315 seats it won in 2007 elections
- If re-elected, Putin could keep the presidency until 2024
Source: Al Jazeera