Voters in Russia are heading to the polls to cast their ballots in the parliamentary election. However, their options are limited, with only the Communists and parties close to the Kremlin having much chance of success.
Putin's United Russia party is expected to win the election
Some 110 million eligible Russian voters are heading to the polls Sunday to take part in an election for the national parliament, the State Duma.
However, only seven parties are authorized to take part and, of these, only three have any chance of entering parliament. Western observers and human rights activists say they do not expect the voting to be free, fair and democratic. This assessment is apparently shared by 54 percent of Russians, as a recent survey showed.
Reports of cyber-attacks on election day have appeared to back up this claim. The independent Moscow Echo radio station reported that its website had been shut down by hackers early on Sunday morning. The independent election monitoring group Golos said its site had been the target of a similar attack.
According to a survey by Moscow's Levada Center, almost two-thirds of Muscovites believe the Duma election is merely a struggle between bureaucratic clans, being about nothing more than access to the state budget and other national resources.
Four parties gained seats in the Duma during the 2007 election
As the largest party in the country, United Russia is the creation of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The right-wing conservative party, which has a Russian bear as its logo, was launched in December 2001 and within a few years became the country's strongest political force.
In the parliamentary election in 2007, the Party of Power, as it's known in Russia, enjoyed a comfortable majority with 315 out of 450 seats. The party owes much of its popularity to Putin - still the most popular politician in the country - who is set to run for president again in 2012.
Critics of United Russia - among them the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev - say it increasingly reminds them of the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They claim Putin's party seeks to dominate and keep rivals away from the political scene.
Communists as second power
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is the only opposition force in parliament and it will probably remain that way. According to surveys, that party could achieve up to 20 percent of the vote and improve upon it's showing in the election four years ago in which it won 11.6 percent. That would again make the Communists the second most powerful force in the Duma.
Putin is set to stand as a presidential candidate in 2012
The party, which calls for a return to the ways of the Soviet Union, socialism and a planned economy, achieved its best results in the 1990s. In the 1996 presidential election, party leader Gennady Zyuganov even made it into the second round.
The third power that looks set to gain seats in the Duma is the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Opinion polls show the party, under the right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, should garner some 10 to 12 percent of the vote.
For years, the party has campaigned against immigration and the party's slogan this time, "We are for the Russians," signals no change in approach. The LDPR usually remains loyal to the Kremlin line.
For the party Just Russia, which has been represented in parliament in the past, there's concern that this time around it will be shut out. The party is currently polling at 9 percent, just above the required 7-percent threshold which must be reached to gain seats in the chamber.
The party describes itself as social democratic and is considered to be close to the Kremlin.
Little chance for opposition
Opposition voices critical of Russian policy continue to play a minor role. This is the repeated experience of pro-Western politicians, like the former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.
The Communist Party is the only real form of parliamentary opposition
This year he and his associates will once again be excluded from taking part in the election. The Justice Ministry in June refused approval to his liberal People's Freedom Party, known as PARNAS. The party had allegedly included the names of deceased members on a party list that it had submitted. Party leaders, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, complained of harassment.
According to polls, opposition parties are set to fall well behind. This also applies to the liberal Yabloko party, which has not managed a place in parliament since 2003.
With pro-Western votes, the recently formed Right Cause party might have made an impact. However, the pro-business party went into meltdown ahead of the campaign. Leader Mikhail Prokhorov resigned, claiming his party had been infiltrated and had become a "puppet" of the Kremlin.
The Kremlin has denied this. Whoever is correct, it seems the party will no longer have a role to play on the Russian political scene.
Author: Roman Goncharenko / rc
Editor: Martin Kuebler