Russians headed to parliamentary polls on Sunday, with parties loyal to President Vladimir Putin expected to maintain their dominance as the Kremlin sought to make a show of eliminating voter fraud after mass opposition protests.
The nationwide elections follow several years of chaos that have seen the country annex Crimea from Ukraine, lurch into its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War, plunge into economic crisis and launch a military campaign in Syria.
Putin’s ratings remain high at around 80 percent, however, 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 in 2018 elections.
But sentiments on the ground at the moment come across as apathetic and outright cynical rather than enthusiastic, said Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Yalta.
“Yesterday we spoke to a woman and she said, ‘You know, Crimea used to be Ukrainian when we voted. Now Crimea is Russian and it will be exactly the same’, and that they don’t have any expectations that these elections will change anything,” our correspondent said.
“So the broad view here is that nothing really is going to change despite the economic problems. But the Kremlin will be watching elections, judging the public mood and [determining] what other changes they might have to make when bigger elections come in 2018 – the next presidential election in Russia.”
In Russia’s second city, 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”.
In a bid to bolster the vote’s legitimacy, the scandal-tainted former election chief was replaced by a human rights camapigner, Ella Pamfilova, who has tried to eliminate the most blatant cases of electoral fraud.
On Sunday morning, she said that she had received reports of so-called “cruise voting” – organisers driving voters with specially marked documents around multiple polling stations – in the city of Barnaul, in Siberia’s Altai region. If confirmed, the commission would call for criminal prosecution and “consider annulling the elections”.
In most regions, “everything is going normally”, she added.
The ruling party United Russia looks set to scoop the largest chunk of the vote ahead of others loyal to the Kremlin such as 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.”
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.
The 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 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 standoff 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.
Polling stations for the vote, which also elects regional leaders in some areas, opened at 8am 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.