MOSCOW (AFP) - Russians on Sunday (Sept 18) voted in parliamentary polls, with parties loyal to President Vladimir Putin set to maintain their dominance despite the Kremlin making a show of cleaning up the vote after mass protests last time around.
The nationwide elections follow several years of tumult that have seen the country annex Crimea from Ukraine, lurch into its worst stand-off with the West since the Cold War, plunge into economic crisis and launch a military campaign in Syria.
But Mr Putin's ratings remain high at around 80 per cent and, with the Kremlin in tight control of the media and public discourse, the authorities appear to be banking on a trouble-free vote paving the way for him to cruise to a fourth term as president at polls in 2018.
Despite the dramatic events that have rocked the country, the campaign for the State Duma - widely seen as a rubber-stamp body that has slavishly toed the Kremlin line - was dubbed the most boring in recent memory by observers and high levels of voter apathy suggest that turnout could be low.
"The campaign wasn't interesting," said 70-year-old Alexander, voting in Moscow on Sunday morning. "They all promise a lot but they're treading a familiar path."
He said he turned out "so that others don't decide for me", voting for the small Pensioners' Party for Justice.
Another elderly voter, 75-year-old Ms Valentina Panteleyeva, said she backed the ruling United Russia party because Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin "has done a lot for us".
Forty-year-old civil servant Svetlana said she voted for pro-business Party of Growth led by the Kremlin's business ombudsman "because there are people there I respect".
Polling stations for the vote - which also elects regional leaders in some areas - opened at 8am across the country's 11 time zones and will close in Russia's European exclave Kaliningrad at 6pm GMT on Sunday.
For the first time residents of the Russia-annexed Black Sea peninsula of Crimea are among the roughly 110 million voters eligible to cast their ballots for the 450-seat Duma, in polls condemned as illegal by Ukraine.
"I call on you to come to polling stations, to vote, to express your position," Mr Putin said in a final appeal to voters last week. "Make your choice, vote for Russia."
On Saturday, he endorsed ruling party United Russia despite campaigning being banned on the day before the vote.
"I created United Russia as a party, so there is no commentary needed here," he said when asked by journalists who he is going to vote for.
United Russia looks set to scoop the largest chunk of the vote ahead of others loyal to the Kremlin like the Communists and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
But looming large for the authorities is the memory of mass protests that followed the last legislative vote in 2011, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets over evidence of ballot stuffing in the biggest challenge to Mr Putin's dominance since he took charge in 2000.
Ingredients for discontent are there again now, with the country mired in the longest recession of Mr Putin's 16-year rule due to low oil prices and the Western sanctions over Ukraine.
But the Kremlin has cracked down on the right to demonstrate and stoked the nationalism unleashed by the seizure of Crimea and subsequent stand-off with the West to boost its popularity.
In a bid to bolster this vote's legitimacy the scandal-tainted former election chief was replaced by a human rights advocate who has looked to eliminate the most blatant cases of electoral fraud.