Russians vote Sunday in parliamentary elections that will test the country’s trust in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his ruling party amid growing impatience with corrupt and ineffective government.
Putin’s United Russia party was expected to fare poorer than it did four years ago but nonetheless was considered likely to retain a majority in the next State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament.
Competing parties, public groups and popular opinion-makers have united in criticism of United Russia, the dominant organization on the Russian political landscape in recent years, and Sunday’s vote was watched closely as a gauge of the party’s staying power.
Polls opened in the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia’s Far East at 8am local time Sunday (2000 GMT Saturday) and are to close at 8pm local time (1700 GMT) in the western exclave of Kaliningrad.
At 4am GMT voting began in Moscow and in most of European Russia, while Far Eastern and Siberian regions have already presented reports about the first hours of the vote, that show that turnout was generally lower than in the previous elections in 2007. No voting violations have been reported so far.
The first exit poll data are due to be released as the last polling stations close, with initial official results expected in the early hours of Monday.
A total of 110 million Russian citizens, including 2 million expatriats scattered around the world, are eligible to vote in Sunday’s election to fill the 450 seats of the State Duma for the next five years, according to the Central Election Commission.
Head of the commission Vladimir Churov said on Dec. 3 that about 500,000 representatives of the competing parties will monitor the vote on Sunday. He added that they will be joined by 700 election observers from international organizations and foreign countries.
The 59-year-old Putin, who served two terms as president between 2000 and 2008, was nominated last month by United Russia as its candidate for presidential elections next March which he is widely regarded as almost certain to win regardless of the party’s performance in Sunday’s Duma vote.
Last month, he repeatedly called for United Russia to retain a majority in the Duma to facilitate smooth passage of government initiatives through parliament in view of current global economic turmoil.
“I am confident that every thoughtful, objective, serious person who wants a better lot for himself, for his children and for Russia will support the United Russia party in the State Duma vote on December 4,” Putin said at the party congress last week.
President Dmitry Medvedev, the junior member of Russia’s ruling tandem, tops the ticket of United Russia. The party organization is led by Putin though neither he nor Medvedev, his hand-picked protégé, is formally a member of the party itself.
During the previous Duma elections in 2007, Putin topped the party’s ticket, and the party’s official program was called Putin’s Plan then.
Parties and regions for State Duma elections
All of Russia’s seven legally-registered political parties are competing for representation in the Duma election but pollsters have predicted that only the four incumbents, United Russia, A Just Russia, the Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party, will find enough support to win seats.
In an extraordinarily intense campaign against United Russia ahead of the vote, opponents accused the ruling party of rampant corruption and nepotism, and criticized what they said was the ineffectiveness of the state machine closely associated with United Russia.
Putin and Medvedev have themselves acknowledged frequently that official corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency are among the most serious problems that plague the Russian state today.
A year ago, Medvedev admitted that one trillion rubles ($32 billion) were stolen from the budget in state procurement tenders alone – an amount equivalent to more than 10 percent of the Russian state budget in 2010.
On Dec. 1, international corruption watchdog Transparency International in its annual corruption index ranked Russia 143rd out of 182 surveyed countries, sharing that spot with Uganda and Nigeria.
According to various public opinion surveys, Russians have consistently named corruption among the biggest threats to the country’s development over the past several years.
In a May 2011 poll conducted by the respected Levada Center think tank, 52 percent of respondents said that there is more corruption among senior officials in Russia today than there was in the 1990’s, compared to just 16 percent who gave that response in 2007.
The number of Russians unhappy with government policies to contain inflation has more than doubled since 1999 from 25 percent then to 56 percent now, while the share of Russians who blame the government for weak social support jumped from 16 percent to 37 percent during the same 12-year period, according to Levada. The share of those dissatisfied with government efforts to combat unemployment grew from 18 percent to 37 percent between 1999 and 2011, while the number of those unhappy with government corruption skyrocketed from three percent to 30 percent.
The ruling party has responded to the criticism by mobilizing regional and municipal officials to rally for United Russia among pensioners and students, with several such cases being reported by the national media.