MOSCOW/SARANSK, Russia, Sept 18 (Reuters) - The ruling United Russia party is expected to win even greater dominance over Russia’s parliament in an election on Sunday, showing that support for President Vladimir Putin is holding up despite sanctions and a deep economic slowdown.
The election for the Duma, or lower house of parliament, is being seen as a dry run for Putin’s expected presidential campaign in 2018.
It is also a test of how well the Kremlin can oversee trouble-free elections. It is the first parliamentary vote since 2011, when allegations of ballot-rigging sparked big protests against Putin in the capital.
Voting got under way at 2000 GMT on Saturday on Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula across the Bering Strait from Alaska. By 1700 GMT on Sunday, most polling stations in Russia were shut, except for Kaliningrad, Russia’s most westerly point, where people have an extra hour to cast their votes.
Yevgeny Korsak, a 65-year-old pensioner in the city of Saransk, 600 km south-east of Moscow, said he had voted for United Russia “because it is strong and powerful.”
A middle-aged man in the town of Velikiye Luki in western Russia, who declined to give his name, told Reuters: “Of course I voted for United Russia .. We don’t need other parties here. At least they (United Russia) have done their stealing.”
United Russia, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin loyalist, has 238 of 450 Duma seats, dominates the more than 80 regional parliaments, and is routinely depicted in a favorable light by state television, where most Russians get their news.
The party is able to draw on the support of the other three parties in the federal Duma, and benefits from its association with 63-year-old Putin, who after 17 years in power as either president or prime minister, enjoys a personal approval rating of about 80 percent. Putin does not belong to any party.
By contrast, liberal opposition politicians, who have just one sympathetic member in the Duma, complain they are starved of air time, vilified by state media, and their campaigns systematically disrupted by pro-Kremlin provocateurs. Pro-Kremlin politicians deny that charge.
The liberal opposition hopes it can break through to win about two dozen seats. Pollsters say it will be lucky to snag a handful and may end up with none.
The vote will be closely watched to see how many of Russia’s roughly 110 million registered voters across its 11 time zones in the world’s largest country turn up to cast their ballots, with some opinion polls showing apathy levels are high.
There was some evidence of that on Sunday with a taxi driver in Ufa, just over 700 miles east of Moscow, telling a Reuters reporter voting “was like urinating into a blocked toilet.” “Why bother?,” the man, who gave his first name as Ilysh, said.
Putin has said it is too early to say if he will go for what would be a fourth presidential term in 2018. If he did and won, he would be in power until 2024, longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Putin, after voting in Moscow, told reporters he now planned to “go to work.” When asked who he had voted for he said: “I have someone to vote for don’t you know.”
Anxious to avoid a repeat of 2011’s street protests, Kremlin officials have tried to assure Russians that the vote will be the cleanest in the country’s modern history.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe are being allowed to monitor the vote, a new head of the central election commission has been appointed, and regional and Kremlin officials have been fired in the run-up.
The authorities have also resurrected an old voting system viewed as more equitable, which means that half of parliament will be decided by people voting for individuals with the other half drawn from party lists. The last parliament was elected on party lists alone.
There were some reports of voting irregularities. Reuters reporters at one polling station witnessed the same people voting multiple times.
The election is the first time that voters in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, are helping decide the makeup of the Duma. That has angered the Ukrainian government and there were scuffles between Ukrainian nationalists and police outside the Russian embassy in Kiev on Sunday after a few nationalists tried to stop Russian citizens from voting there.
Polls show United Russia’s popularity has been somewhat dented by a grinding economic crisis caused by a fall in global oil prices and compounded by Western sanctions over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
But they also show that Putin’s own popularity remains high and that many voters buy the Kremlin narrative that is frequently repeated on state TV, of the West using sanctions to try to wreck the economy in revenge for Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.
The first exit polls are due at 1800 GMT on Sunday.