Russia goes to the polls from Friday to elect a new Parliament in a three-day vote.
Observers say the vote will be a litmus test for President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power at the Kremlin.
The majority Putin’s party—United Russia—holds the 450-seat State Duma is at stake. The president had taken full advantage of this last year to push through constitutional reforms that allow him to run for office again and potentially stay in power until 2036.
Voting will run until late Sunday in what is being viewed as a test-run for the 2024 presidential election; a highly sensitive moment for the Kremlin should it choose to embark on a political transition to a new leader.
Putin, a former KGB officer who turns 69 next month, has not said if he will seek re-election when his current term ends in 2024, having served as president or prime minister since 1999.
The Kremlin leader’s fiercest domestic critic, jailed anti-corruption firebrand Alexei Navalny, hopes a tactical voting campaign led by his team in exile can upstage United Russia and hurt its bid to secure a hefty new majority.
The 45-year-old former lawyer, whose movement was banned as extremist this summer, was jailed in March after recovering from poisoning with a Soviet-style nerve agent.
His allies, who accuse the Kremlin of a sweeping crackdown, have no chance of gaining even a toehold in real politics after they were barred from running for office because of their association with Navalny’s network.
However, the Kremlin denies any politically-driven crackdown and says individuals are prosecuted for breaking the law.
The Communist Party, led by 77-year-old parliament veteran Gennady Zyuganov, is seen as the ruling party’s strongest rival at the vote, followed by the LDPR party headed by 75-year-old nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Both parties, like the Just Russia party, back Putin on many key policy matters.
Navalny’s allies call the election a sham and have told supporters to vote for candidates with the best chance of defeating United Russia in their respective districts.
Many of those politicians are communists.
State-run opinion polls show the Communist Party’s popularity has risen in recent months, while United Russia’s rating slipped last month to its lowest since 2006, though it remained the most popular party.
The vote is being held alongside elections for regional governors and local legislative assemblies.
It is stretched over three days as a COVID-19 precaution, a move critics say means that monitoring efforts to stop voter fraud are spread more thinly.
The elections in Moscow and several regions will feature the widespread use of electronic voting for the first time, an innovation critics fear is non-transparent and open to abuse.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will not be sending vote observers to Russia for the first time since the 1993 elections.