MOSCOW: Russians went to the polls Sunday in parliamentary polls, with parties loyal to President Vladimir Putin set to maintain their dominance despite the longest economic crisis of his rule.
The nationwide election follows a tumultuous few years that have seen the country seize the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine, plunge into its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War and start a military operation in Syria.
But the Kremlin exerts near-total control and, after a campaign dubbed the most boring in recent memory, a trouble-free victory for ruling United Russia would help smooth the way for Putin to claim a fourth term as president in 2018.
“I knew who to vote for. Surely you must be aware,” Putin quipped to journalists after casting his vote in Moscow, Russian agencies reported.
Looming large is the spectre of mass protests over vote rigging that followed the last legislative polls five years ago and grew into the biggest challenge to Putin since he took charge in 2000.
This time round the authorities have made a show of cleaning up the vote by replacing the former scandal-tainted election chief and allowing more genuine opposition candidates to take part.
But critics insist the Kremlin’s media dominance means the vote can never be fair and — with the 450-member State Duma viewed as a rubber-stamp body that slavishly toes the Kremlin’s line — apathy is widespread.
“The elections are absolutely predictable,” Dmitry Pribytkov, 47, told AFP after voting in the second city of Saint Petersburg.
“But this is my country and I have to express my opinion.”
Officials said that by noon (0900 GMT) the nationwide turnout was standing at around 23 percent.
Despite the authorities pledging to crack down on vote-rigging, observers and opposition candidates from around the country posted claims of possible violations including “cruise-voting” — where people are bussed to vote at multiple polling stations — and ballot stuffing.
Electoral commission head Ella Pamfilova dismissed claims of widespread fraud but said authorities were probing allegations in the Siberian Altai region and threatened to annul the vote there.
Despite the country suffering its longest recession of Putin’s rule due to low oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, the Kremlin’s United Russia looks set to scoop the largest chunk of the vote ahead of other parties loyal to the authorities like the Communists and ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
A change to the electoral system means half of the deputies are being chosen on a constituency basis — a switch that looks set to help pro-Kremlin parties, which have funnelled state resources into their campaigns.
Polling stations were due to close in Russia’s western-most European exclave of Kaliningrad at 1800 GMT and exit polls are expected shortly afterwards.
For the first time since Moscow seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014 residents there voted for Russia’s parliament. Ukraine has slammed the poll as illegal.
While leaders from the region’s Crimean Tatar minority — which largely opposed Moscow’s takeover — have said they are boycotting the vote, others said they were proud to take part.
“I went to vote, and all my relatives and neighbours are going,” said pensioner Valentina. “We are for Russia.”
Voters in some areas of the vast country are also electing regional leaders.
In the North Caucasus region of Chechnya strongman Ramzan Kadyrov performed a traditional dance before casting his ballot as he faces the first electoral test of his iron-fisted rule.
Ahead of the vote, rights groups said that all criticism of Kremlin stalwart Kadyrov had been ruthlessly crushed.