More than 100 million Russians will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a president who will be in office for the next six years.
What do the polls suggest will happen?
Most polls indicate it will be an outright victory for Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister and former president who has made a deal with his ally Dmitry Medvedev, the former prime minister and current president. Despite initial public outrage over their job swap, Putin is consistently polling at around 50 per cent – well ahead of the fragmented opposition.
And even if voters do not endorse Putin, his victory is likely to be assured with the help of regional officials loyal to his United Russia party. Having extended the presidential term of office from four to six years, Putin would remain in charge until 2018 – or 2024, if he won a second term. By then, Putin would have chalked up 24 years in power out of the 33 years since the collapse of Communism thanks to his previous terms as president and prime minister.
If the outcome is such a certainty, why should the U.S. and other Western countries care?
Experts agree the U.S. will find Russia harder to deal with on Putin’s return. On Wednesday, British think tank Chatham House warned that “Russia’s stability is at increased risk” due to Putin's determination to stay in power. “The overriding objective of Vladimir Putin and his team is to preserve the narrow and personalized ruling system that they have built over the past 12 years,” it said in a report. “Real change, necessarily involving accountability and devolution of power, would disrupt the system. But without real change, Russia cannot develop as effectively as it could, and the Putin system is vulnerable to shock.”
Opposition leaders believe Russia at a crossroads in this election, according to NBC News correspondent Jim Maceda.
“The choice is stark: six, perhaps 12, more years of an authoritative regime that is belligerent to critics ... and which sees the U.S. and its allies as Cold War rivals -- or a new, more democratic Russia that respects its neighbors and no longer snubs the West,” he said.
“The feeling is that a President Putin will instinctively shrink from, rather than encourage, co-operation with the West on a range of issues including Iran and Syria, so there’s a lot at stake for the U.S. in this election," added Maceda, who has reported on the country since the days of the Soviet Union.
Although Putin enjoys strong domestic popularity, especially in rural Russia, dissatisfaction with his seemingly invincible regime has resulted in unprecedented public protests, with thousands joining recent marches in central Moscow that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.
What happens if Putin doesn't do as well as the polls suggest?
If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the total votes cast, a second round run-off between the top two contenders will be held within 15 days, according to the country's electoral rules.
Who are the opposition?
Putin’s United Russia is opposed by long-standing Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov and Sergey Mironov of A Just Russia. Two other candidates will liven up the contest. The first is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party candidate who once suggested retaking Alaska from the U.S. His populist remarks have repeatedly landed him in trouble. The second is Mikhail Prokhorov, the 6’ 9” international playboy who is the multi-billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets and business partner of rap star Jay-Z.
Eleven other candidates were summarily rejected by Russia’s Central Elections Committee as ineligible for reasons ranging from paperwork errors to not having the necessary two million verifiable signatures of support.
Is Prokhorov wasting his time?
“On paper, the ‘billionaire bachelor’ should probably pack it in and focus on his day job and the back half of the NBA season,” said Maceda. “But guess who is the only candidate surging in the polls? Prokhorov was hovering around one per cent when he launched his campaign in December, now he’s scraping 10 per cent.”
Could his pro-business platform resonate with Russians sick of endemic corruption and bribery? “He is learning to connect with ordinary Russians,” said Maceda. “His performance of a Russian rap tune has gone viral on the web and, who knows, maybe if this goes into a second round and enough voters who want neither Putin not Zyuganov rally round the new face, anything could happen.”
But would communists really switch support from Zyuganov to back the world’s 32nd richest man in the event of a second round? “There is no evidence that suggests that is likely,” said Professor Richard Rose, director of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy at Glasgow'sUniversity of Strathclyde and co-author of the "Popular Support for an Undemocratic Regime."
Can the results be trusted anyway?
“Vote fraud was widespread in December’s parliamentary elections and it is likely to be a factor again,” said James Nixey, an expert on Russia with Chatham House and a co-author of Wednesday’s report. “It is likely a Putin victory will be solidified through fraud before and after, rather than on polling day itself.”
A Wall Street Journal analysis of December’s Duma election results showed United Russia party captured a high share of voters in districts where turnout was well above the national average, suggesting ballot-stuffing.
But although the issue has angered many voters, Russians seem resigned to the problem. “Russians are not particularly concerned with the process,” said Rose. “They do not view the elections in the same way an independent observer might.”
What issues have featured in the campaign?
“Wages and economic prosperity are what matter most,” said Nixey. “There has also been a patriotic narrative from Putin, which strikes a chord with voters.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were wider questions about what sort of society could be created and how it should be structured. “Now, most educated professionals spend their time bogged down in how to make schools and hospitals work for the best,” said Rose, adding that there was not widespread demand for political upheaval.
Putin succeeded in imposing some kind of order in the post-Soviet Russia he inherited from the unpredictable Boris Yeltsin. He won a power struggle with the country’s new super-rich oligarchs -- tackling them with the ruthlessness learned during his time working for the KGB -- and used media stunts such as bare-chested horseback riding in order to maintain his appeal to ordinary Russians.
Given Putin’s poll lead, the opposition is not focused on whether Putin wins, but how. “This election is about the first round,” said Maceda. “If other candidates do better than expected and Putin is forced into a second round, the opposition will see it as a major victory and the beginning of the end for Putin.”
But a decisive, unchallenged victory for Putin could see the opposition neutered until the next election cycle in six years’ time, he added.
So what, if anything, might change?
Putin has pledged more than $160 billion in campaign promises, Maceda said, so some Russians will reap the benefits of his determination to stay in office.
Further protests could also draw concessions, particularly to the country’s frustrated middle classes. “The very fact that there have been protests shows that there is the sense of an ending around Putin’s regime, that it is aware of its own mortality,” said Nixey.
However, there is no wider expectation of reform. Data from the country’s Levada Center polling organization shows four out of five Russians don’t believe elections make any difference to national affairs.
Is social media playing a role?
As in the Arab Spring, protesters have used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to get their message across. In December, video footage and pictures that appeared to show election officials rigging ballots in favor of United Russia were widely shared online, sparking a furious backlash against Medvedev.
The president -- a keen user of social media with 759,000 Twitter followers of his Russian language account and 144,000 in English -- saw thousands of negative comments posted on his official Facebook page by internet users accusing him of burying the issue of election fraud by holding an internal inquiry.
Meanwhile, Russia’s independent elections monitor, Golos, has created an interactive map for voters to upload video and photographs of any election violations on Sunday directly from their mobile phones. The organization, funded largely by Western governments, has been targeted by a documentary on state-controlled television accusing it of serving American interests, according to a New York Times report.
Will there be violence?
“With security forces being full of young guys carrying machine guns, there is always the fear that these protests could turn nasty,” said Nixey, whose report suggests a "next wave of protest in the Soviet-era provincial cities, fuelled by social and economic discontent, is inevitable" However, he added: “If I had to predict whether there would be serious public disorder I would guess not. The country is generally more secure than those caught up in the Arab Spring.”
Rose added: “The fragmented opposition would first need to rally around one particular issue, and then use that to create some kind of significant embarrassment for Putin. That doesn’t appear a realistic prospect at the moment.”