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Russia Votes Sunday Following Controversial Campaign

Voters in Russia go to the polls Sunday in a parliamentary election that follows a campaign dominated by President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party. VOA Moscow correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports Mr. Putin is looking for a big win that will allow United Russia to further consolidate power going into presidential elections on March 2.

The parliamentary campaign officially came to an end at midnight Friday, but opposition parties say their efforts to convince voters never really started. The opposition accuses the Kremlin of stifling debate, denying access to nationwide television, confiscating campaign literature, and arresting political opponents.

During the campaign, Mr. Putin made clear his intention for United Russia to gain influence over all of the country's key power structures including parliament, federal and regional governments, the courts, and Central Bank.

Mr. Putin says an exceptionally important aspect of the parliamentary election is that it takes places a few months before the presidential election. He adds that a victory in the December election will lead to victory in the March presidential vote.

United Russia's media campaign advantage was clear. President Putin was often shown on national television speaking in favor of his organization, and also harshly criticizing opponents as failed individuals or jackals with foreign ties who seek to humiliate and impoverish Russia. Rebuttals or return criticism by the opposition was relegated to small circulation newspapers. National TV access was denied.

A number of opposition parties were barred from participating in the election, including those forming a coalition led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov. He was arrested last week and sentenced to five days in jail for holding a demonstration that authorities did not allow. Kasparov sees Mr. Putin's frequent campaign activity as a sign of political trouble.

"He is trying to boost numbers for 'United Russia' because he knows the gap between virtual numbers that are trumpeted by Kremlin propaganda and real numbers," he said. "The gap is growing. People are quite concerned, they are annoyed. The prices are going up, the living standards are deteriorating. So, Putin is demonstrating that he is no longer confident".

The final day before the election in Russia is termed the day of silence. Mr. Putin was shown on national television Saturday spending part of the previous evening at a martial arts exhibition in the capital. Also on Saturday, Russian national television networks announced a 30 percent increase in government pension benefits and a 15 percent hike in military salaries.

More than 100 million Russians are eligible to vote, including those who live abroad but remain citizens of Russia.