by Dinh Lanh and Nhu Hoa
Nearly 109 million voters across Russia will head to the polls on Sunday to elect a president who will lead the country for the next six years, with most opinion polls predicting a strong victory for Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin.
He is opposed by four other candidates, including Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov; Vladimir Zhirinov-sky, leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR); Sergei Mironov from the leftist A Just Russia Party (SR); and self-nominated tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov. Local and international pundits do not view any of them as a significant challenge to Putin's return to the Kremlin.
Despite the lack of serious opposition, Putin has campaigned on a specific and long-term platform. Since mid-January, he has published a series of seven articles ranging widely over the current national agenda, on topics such as development, the nationalities question, economics, democracy, social policy, military affairs and foreign policy.
The articles have been seen as Putin's response to the political challenge posed by unfavourable results in December's parliamentary elections and mass protests that erupted in Moscow and other cities. Putin has faced a daily onslaught of satire on the internet, with hundreds of anti-Putin cartoons, videos and jokes. This past weekend, thousands marched in Moscow to protest Putin, and opposition leaders are already planning rallies for the day after the election.
But Putin, 59, has promised in his manifesto to create a "strong Russia in a complex world" on both his campaign website, putin2012.ru, and in the daily Moskovskie Novosti (Moscow News).
"We will ensure the accountability of authorities towards the society they serve," Putin said, proposing "effective government under the control of the people."
He also called for a renewal of democracy in Russia.
"Our civil society has become incomparably more mature, active and responsible," he wrote. "We need to update the mechanism of our democracy."
He also said that the government needed to plan for the anticipated increase in Russia's population to 154 million over the next 40 years. He urged the government to draft a programme aiming to encourage Russians abroad to return home, saying Russia needed 300,000 Russian-speaking skilled migrants annually.
But in a stern warning to the West, Putin also vowed that world powers should not make decisions "behind the back of Russia or avoiding Russia and her interests.... Unilateral actions by our partners that fail to take into account Russia's opinion and her interests will receive a corresponding response."
Putin served as the President of the Russian Federation during 1999-2008, leading Russia in a period of stability and continuity. With 7-per-cent average annual growth in GDP, Russia was able to repay its debts and accumulate almost US$600 billion in foreign currency reserves, taking its place among the world's leading emerging economies.
Forbidden by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, Putin has served as Prime Minister since 2008 under President Dmitri Medvedev. During that time, Russia has taken a stronger stance on international issues, becoming a counterpart to the influence of Western powers.
Putin didn't hide his position on Syria, since Russia has remained firm in its pledge to veto any UN Security Council resolution that could open the door to international military intervention there.
In his seventh campaign paper published early this week, Putin wrote, "We intend to proceed consistently from our own interests and goals and not from decisions dictated by somebody else. Russia is respected and taken into account only when it is strong and stands firmly on its own feet."
But Putin is also willing to strike a conciliatory tone on international issues as needed, and he has made progress on such issues such as WTO accession, the new START arms control agreement with the US, and anti-terrorist operations.
In the 2000 presidential election, Putin won with 53 per cent of the vote, and he was re-elected in 2004 with 71 per cent of the vote, according to official results.
Last week, the state-run Public Opinion Foundation published a poll showing that 58.7 per cent of Russian voters intended to cast their ballots for Putin in the March 4 election, while turnout was projected to reach 61.8 per cent. The state-run pollster VTSIOM predicted a similar victory for Putin, showing him with the support of 58.6 per cent of voters.
A poll by the independent Levada Centre showed 80 per cent of Russians believed Putin would win, while 57 per cent viewed him as the "national leader".
His nearest rival, the Communist Zyuganov, was polling at only 15 per cent, while 8 per cent of voters said they would vote for ultra-nationalist Zhirinovsky and 6 per cent for the independent Prokhorov. Only 5 per cent supported A Just Russia leader Mironov, according to the poll.
A run-off election was therefore "highly unlikely", Levada Centre head Lev Gudkov told the Interfax news agency.
Putin himself has ordered the installation of webcams at polling stations in a bid to ensure transparency.
"As for the presidential election, Putin has no competition," wrote political analyst Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. "Even with his popularity slightly on the decline, he faces no serious challenge". — VNS