Russians cast their ballots with muted enthusiasm in national parliamentary elections Sunday, a vote that opinion polls indicate could water down the strength of the party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, despite the government's relentless marginalization of opposition groups.
Although Putin and his United Russia party have dominated Russian politics for more than a decade, popular discontent appears to be growing with Putin's strongman style, widespread corruption among officials and the gap between ordinary Russians and the country's super-rich.
United Russia holds a two-thirds majority in the outgoing State Duma. But a survey last month by the independent Levada Center polling agency indicated the party could get only about 53 per cent of the vote in this election, depriving it of the number of seats necessary to change the constitution unchallenged.
Party leaders have signalled concern, with Putin warning that a parliament with a wide array of parties would lead to political instability and claiming that Western governments want to undermine the election. A Western-funded independent election-monitoring group has come under strong pressure.
Only seven parties have been allowed to field candidates for parliament this year, while the most vocal opposition groups have been denied registration and barred from campaigning.
The Communist Party and the liberal Yabloko party complained Sunday of extensive election violations aimed at boosting United Russia's vote count, including party observers being hindered in their work.
In Vladivostok, voters complained to police that United Russia was offering free food in exchange for promises to vote for the party. In St. Petersburg, an Associated Press photographer saw a United Russia emblem affixed to the curtains on a voting booth.
United Russia's dominance of politics has induced a grudging sense of impotence among many in the country of 143 million. In Vladivostok, voter Artysh Munzuk noted the contrast between the desire to do one's civic duty and the feeling that it doesn't matter.
"It's very important to come to the polling stations and vote, but many say that it's useless," said the 20-year-old university student.
There are around 110 million eligible voters in Russia and turnout in many areas appeared low Sunday. In the Pacific Coast regions of Sakhalin and Kamchatka, turnout was just 45 to 48 per cent with two hours to go until the polls closed.
Turnout in some regions appeared high, however. An Associated Press reporter saw a polling station in Moscow's southwest filled with voters, including an unusually high number of young people compared to the previous election.
Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev made final appeals for the party Friday, the last day of campaigning, warning that a parliament made up of diverse political camps would be incapable of making decisions.
The view underlines Russian authorities' continuing discomfort with political pluralism and preference for top-down operation.
As president in 2000-2008, Putin's autocratic leadership style won wide support among Russians exhausted by a decade of post-Soviet uncertainty. But United Russia has become increasingly disliked, seen as stifling opposition, representing a corrupt bureaucracy and often called "the party of crooks and thieves."
Putin needs the party to do well in the parliamentary election to pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away.
With so much at stake, there are doubts about how honestly the election will be conducted. An interim report from an elections-monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted that "most parties have expressed a lack of trust in the fairness of the electoral process."
The websites of Ekho Moskvy, a prominent, independent-minded radio station, and Golos, the country's only independent election-monitoring group, were down on Sunday. Both claimed the failures were due to denial-of-service hacker attacks.