Russia is voting in presidential elections on Sunday that are almost certain to see Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reclaim the Kremlin throne he ceded four years ago to his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, because of constitutional limits.
Opinion polls suggest Mr. Putin is on course to confidently win the race in the first round with more than 60 per cent of the votes. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, the strongest challenger among Mr. Putin's four rivals, is not expected to garner more than 15 per cent of the votes.
Wave of protests
Despite Mr. Putin's overwhelming lead, the current election is taking place in a tense mood electrified by a wave of protests that rolled across Russia in the wake of a parliamentary poll in December. Tens of thousands of Russians, angered by allegations of a massive election fraud in favour of Mr. Putin's party, United Russia, took to the streets to demand political reforms and protest against Mr. Putin's return as President.
Mr. Putin's campaigners counter-attacked by organising still bigger rallies in his support, but some participants said they had been forced or paid to take part. Mr. Putin said his opponents were preparing a “coloured revolution” financed and inspired by the West, and could go as far as to kill an opposition leader and blame his death on the government to provoke disorders. Mr. Putin also claimed the opposition was preparing counterfeit videos to bolster their complaints of fraud in the coming presidential poll. Police have launched a probe. Earlier, police dismissed as fake numerous videos of violations during the December election that had sparked off unprecedented protests.
Vote fraud feared
Critics said Mr. Putin's accusations showed that authorities were preparing a large-scale falsification of Sunday's poll in favour of the Russian strongman. Some experts questioned the pollsters' high ratings of Mr. Putin's popularity. They said people were reluctant to reveal their true election preferences in surveys in the face of an aggressive pro-Putin campaign. Respected sociologist Dmitry Oreshkin estimated that Mr. Putin's real support did not exceed 35-40 per cent. However, the Kremlin wants to avoid a runoff at all costs because it fears this could erode the legitimacy of Mr. Putin's third term.
Leaders of street protests have called on Russians to vote for any candidate, but Mr. Putin to force a runoff.
After the cries of fraud in the December election Mr. Putin ordered web cameras to be installed at each of Russian's 93,000 polling stations, but opposition said much of vote stealing took place off camera. Several opposition groups have trained tens of thousands of volunteers to work as poll watchers.