MOSCOW -- Increasingly restive Russian voters have begun going to the polls in national elections to pick a new State Duma, with the dominant pro-Kremlin party facing declining poll numbers but expected to fare well.
Even despite falling popularity that most polls put below 40 percent, analysts said the ruling United Russia party was likely to maintain its majority in the Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Russia's 110 million eligible voters can choose from seven parties on the ballot, with the Communists, Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia expected to lead the challenge to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev's United Russia.
A weak showing by United Russia, which currently holds 315 of the Duma's 410 seats, would be the clearest sign yet of rising public discontent in Russia, which has been dominated by Putin for more than a decade and could see two more terms of a Putin presidency.
While a disappointing result for United Russia -- at least one of whose harshest critics has dubbed it "the party of thieves and swindlers,"
-- would certainly make for poor optics for the ruling elite, analysts say it would make little difference in terms of governance.
United Russia could indeed lose the current two-thirds supermajority that allows it to change the constitution unfettered.
However, the Kremlin's media dominance and its command of so-called administrative resources should assure United Russia at least a simple majority, analysts say. And its ability to pressure other parties to back the government agenda in the next Duma suggests the lower house will remain little more than a rubberstamp body for Putin and his inner circle.
"I think the odds of United Russia winning a constitutional [two-thirds] majority have fallen fairly dramatically, but on the other hand, it is unlikely to change much [if they lose it]," Mikhail Vinogradov, the chairman of the St. Petersburg Policy Fund, told RFE/RL. "First of all, this is because the State Duma is not a key body for deciding and forming policy. Second, United Russia would still be able to form a coalition."
Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says United Russia might even impose loyalty on rival parties.
"There are many different ways to make them loyal," Petrov says. "One of these is huge financial control. As there is no separation between business and political power, then no political party can count on getting any money from any business without the Kremlin's permission, which makes it possible for the Kremlin not only to control these political parties in general but to control them at all stages of the campaign because this financial support can be cut off at any time."
Indeed, a recent commentary in the daily "Vedomosti" dubbed the Duma the "Approval Ministry," calling it a "legislative conveyor belt for quickly rubber-stamping legislative initiatives from the president and government."
Nevertheless, the December 4 vote will help determine the political climate for the March presidential election, when Putin is expected to retake the presidency, which since 2008 has been held by his close protege Medvedev.
United Russia's party list is led by Medvedev, who is expected to switch places with Putin and become prime minister when his presidential term expires next year.
In a televised address to voters on December 2, Medvedev insisted that Russia's political parties enjoy "free and equal competition" and called for the election of "a capable legislative body dominated by responsible politicians."
But in a sign of how nervous the authorities might be about the elections, prosecutors this week opened a case against the country's only independent election monitoring organization, Golos, which receives funding from Western governments and has already chronicled thousands of electoral violations.
Analysts are divided over which of the six other parties will be able to clear the 7 percent threshold necessary to win seats in the Duma.
A poll released November 28 by the state-run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) suggested that Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party, and Sergei MIronov's center-left A Just Russia would clear the barrier.
Three others -- Yabloko, a liberal party whose list is led by economist Grigory Yavlinsky, the center-right party Right Cause, and the nationalist Patriots of Russia -- were expected to struggle to win seats.
Critical observers say they expect a degree of falsification. The Kremlin has also become increasingly adept at using what are commonly referred to as "administrative resources" -- such as pressuring state employees to cast votes for United Russia -- to protect the ruling party from an embarrassing result.
Some Kremlin-watchers say, however, that even with such tactics, United Russia is in for a difficult election.
Pavel Salin of the Center for Political Assessments said he was "90 percent certain" that United Russia would lose its two-thirds supermajority.
"As we see from the scandals periodically popping up on the Internet, the United Russia leadership and local authorities are trying in every way possible to make use of their 'administrative resources,'" Salin said. "But as we know from experience, if a party has a rating of 20 percent, there's no way that it's going to clear 50 percent. The limit to the effectiveness of applying administrative resources both during the campaign and during vote counting is between 10 and 20 percent, depending on the region."
Against this backdrop, opposition parties who have been denied registration to contest the election -- the "non-systemic opposition" -- are divided over how to approach the vote.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, whose unregistered Party of People's Freedom (Parnas), have called for supporters to simply boycott elections they call "illegitimate."
On the other hand, opposition blogger and corruption fighter Aleksei Navalny and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov have called for their supporters to vote for any party other than United Russia to drive down the ruling party's numbers.
with additional agency reporting