MOSCOW — Russia's long dominant party appeared likely to lose its edge as voters across the sprawling country cast ballots for Parliament on Sunday, many of them frustrated over corruption and the gap between ordinary Russians and the super-rich.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party has signaled it is worried about polls showing it could receive only a bit more than half the votes, cracking down on an independent election monitor and warning of political instability.
The Kremlin is determined to see United Russia maintain its two-thirds majority, an unassailable dominance that allows it to amend the constitution. Both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev made final appeals for the party on Friday, the last day of campaigning, warning that a parliament made up of diverse political camps would be incapable of making decisions.
The view underlines Russian authorities' continuing discomfort with political pluralism and preference for top-down operation. As president in 2000-2008, Putin's strongman leadership style won wide support among Russians exhausted by a decade of post-Soviet uncertainty.
But United Russia has become increasingly disliked, seen as stifling opposition, representing a corrupt bureaucracy and often called "the party of crooks and thieves." Putin needs the party to do well in the parliamentary election to pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away.
With so much at stake, there are doubts about how honestly the election will be conducted. An interim report from an elections-monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that "most parties have expressed a lack of trust in the fairness of the electoral process."
The only independent Russian election-monitoring group, Golos, has come under strong pressure in the week leading up to the vote.
Golos' leader, Lilya Shibanova, was held at a Moscow airport for 12 hours upon her Friday return from Poland after refusing to give her laptop computer to security officers, said Golos' deputy director Grigory Melkonyants. On Friday, the group was fined the equivalent of $1,000 by a Moscow court for violating a law that prohibits publication of election opinion research for five days before a vote.
Putin last Sunday accused Western governments of trying to influence the election. Golos is funded by grants from the United States and Europe.
Golos has complied some 5,300 complaints of election-law violations ahead of the vote. Most are linked to United Russia, the party headed by Putin, who has dominated Russian politics for a dozen years as president and prime minister.
Roughly a third of the complainants – mostly government employees and students – say employers and professors are pressuring them to vote for the party.
Only seven parties have been allowed to field candidates for parliament this year, while the most vocal opposition groups have been denied registration and barred from campaigning.
Some of the parties in the running are unlikely to clear the 7-percent threshold for winning seats, which are proportionally allocated; critics say the 7-percent level is prohibitively high, effectively ensuring that most minority views are denied representation.