Russians vote Sunday for a new parliament that critics call the "Approval Ministry" for rubber-stamping bills advocated by the Kremlin. Voting will take place among growing discontent with Russia?s strongman of the last decade, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin likes choreographed politics like last Sunday at the nominating convention of the ruling United Russia party where he won 614 of 614 votes cast.
But one week earlier, Putin, a judo expert, was unexpectedly booed at a martial arts match. One blogger called it "the end of an era." Then, another taboo was broken shortly after, when Mr. Putin visited Russia?s parliament, and opposition deputies refused to stand.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former Duma deputy, believes Putin wants a political bounce from Sunday?s elections. Ryzhkov says Putin believes a heavy turnout, without widespread accusations of fraud, will give his rule legitimacy.
Communist militants who have been demonstrating in downtown Moscow will vote. The Communist Party is expected to come in second.
Some of these nationalists will vote for a Kremlin-controlled nationalist party.
But other opposition voters plan to stay home or mark a large X across their paper ballots.
To pump up the turnout, the government is running TV ads like this one that shows a sexy girl luring a young man into a polling booth and then closing the curtain.
The Kremlin says voters can choose among seven parties.
One party, Fair Russia, is airing ads lambasting corruption in the government. But authorities refused to register Vladimir Ryzhkov?s party.
Ryzhkov compares Russia?s system with communist East Germany, where Putin served as a KGB agent. East Germany had five parties. Today, China has nine parties. But, he says, no one calls China a multi-party democracy.
Golos, a nongovernmental organization, has set up an electronic bulletin board for complaints about election rule violations. So far, more than 4,500 have come in by email, SMS and telephone.
Lilia Shibanova who runs Golos says that government employees - teachers, doctors and social workers - are under heavy pressure to get out the vote for United Russia.
In a preemptive move, state-run TV is attacking Golos prior to Sunday?s vote, painting them as foreign agents.
David Hoffman reported on Russian politics in the 1990s for the Washington Post. Back in Moscow to research a book, he says Putin has radically reduced political competition in Russia.
"The oxygen of democracy is competition," Hoffman noted. "And there are some signs that I certainly see that people are not happy with the idea of some kind of democracy that lacks competition. And I think that is a big, big change from 15 years ago."
Sunday?s turnout and the perception of fairness in the parliamentary vote will set the stage for Russia?s big electoral prize, presidential elections on March 4.