Polls suggest Unified Russia will win by a wide margin, picking up at least 60 percent of the vote. And the country's new 7 percent threshold means that the likely second-place finishers, the Communists, may be the only other party eligible for places in the 450-seat State Duma.
Even so, the drive to secure a sweeping Unified Russia win remains high. Nikolai Petrov, an election analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says the backstage motivation for falsifying the elections is simple. This election, he says, has turned into a referendum on Putin's popularity.
"That's why he's personally interested in getting as many votes as possible," Petrov says. "That's why they should deliver not only a high share of votes in favor of Unified Russia, but they should have a pretty high turnout as well."
Counting 'Dead Souls'
How might it be possible to guarantee a high turnout? One way is to fiddle with the number of people eligible to vote, says Aleksei Mukhin, the director of the Center for Political Information. This can -- in a page lifted from Nikolai Gogol's "Dead Souls" -- include registering voters who have passed away.
"In some North Caucasus republics, 102 percent of voters cast their ballots," Mukhin said of the 2003 parliamentary vote. "That's physically impossible. The result was that every single vote had to be recounted from scratch. It can get ridiculous."
Part of the problem, observers say, is that regional governors, who are now appointed directly by the president, feel obliged to deliver as many votes for the ruling party as they can.
"It's no secret that the Kremlin has set targets for regional governors on how many votes they should deliver for Unified Russia," says Yevgeny Volk, who directs the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation. "And it's clear that those governors, whose future depends on how many voters in their region vote for Unified Russia, will do everything they can to register as many votes as possible for the pro-government party."
Lack Of Oversight
Complicating the issue further is the near-complete absence of foreign election monitors. The main vote-observation body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been a constant presence at past elections in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
But the OSCE this month announced it would not send monitors to the December 2 vote, saying the Russian government -- which imposed strict limitations on the number of monitors welcome, and dragged its heels on visa processing -- had made it next to impossible to carry out its mission.
Some 1,200 international observers were present during Russia's December 2003 parliamentary vote. This time around, there will be just 280 -- a drop in the bucket in a vast country with approximately 100,000 polling stations. Under such circumstances, says the Carnegie Center's Petrov, ballot-rigging is potentially very easy.
But, he says, there are ways to check for fraud. An unusually high turnout at a polling station, with a disproportionate number of votes for one party, often points to abuse, he says. A high number of mobile votes, where members of a local election commission travel to people's homes because they are too old or too ill to come to the polling station, can also indicate rigging.
In the 2003 vote, says Petrov, the share of such voters in some regions rose about 30 percent -- "a clear sign of probable falsification," he says.
Votes Made To Order
There are also concerns that votes in military units may not be free and fair. According to the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, there are 600,000 conscripts who are eligible to vote. But Pavel Felgenhauer, a military commentator at the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper, says the armed forces vote in different circumstances to the ordinary population.
"Military units have so-called closed voting stations, where everyone is marched in to vote," says Felgenhauer. "Of course, there is also lots of intimidation and pressure to vote for the ruling party. The army has always voted as it was told to, at least the soldiers, so that has never been a problem. And there's almost 100 percent turnout in the military."
But if any wayward conscripts choose to vote differently, Felgenhauer says, there are other ways to produce the desired result -- namely, throwing out the original protocol of results and simply substituting a new one with the desired numbers. "And that happens not only with the military," he adds. "That can happen anywhere."
Another tactic is the use of absentee ballots. Four times as many absentee ballots have reportedly been issued for this election as for the 2003 vote. There is evidence that students in various parts of Russia have been urged to vote by absentee in the districts where they study, rather than traveling home to vote -- opening the possibility for their ballot in their home districts to be cast in their name for the party of the local election commission's choice.
The regional headquarters of the Russian Railways system in Yekaterinburg has reportedly issued absentee ballots to all employees and has ordered them to vote from the work locations for Unified Russia. Employees who fail to do so will reportedly not be eligible for end-of-the-year bonuses. Some students have also reported being threatened with expulsion for failing to vote for Unified Russia or for being rewarded with a dormitory room or other bonuses if they do.
Analysts say there is also potential for ballot-rigging in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester.
The regions receive strong financial backing from the Russian government. Many of their residents have been given Russian passports and are told they're eligible to vote, but Petrov says there are fears they may be pressured into voting for Unified Russia.
"Say authorities at a local level are clearly expressing the need to vote in favor of Unified Russia," he says. "Then, in many cases, they don't need to falsify the elections. Their signal is understandable for, say, rural inhabitants, who are highly dependent on local authorities."
For more on Russia's parliamentary vote, see Will These Elections Be Russia's Last? and For Russia's Most Powerful Man, Fear Still A Factor