MOSCOW – Russia's weekend parliament elections take place under new rules that in principle could bring genuine opposition into the national legislature. But the Kremlin-backed United Russia and the parties that almost always follow its lead are set remain the overwhelming presence in the State Duma.
In an election mostly featuring old faces, the new face that may matter the most is someone who's not running — the chairman of the Central Election Commission. Under Ella Pamfilova, a prominent human rights figure appointed to lead the commission less than six months ago, Sunday's vote promises to avoid some of the fraud allegations that have plagued previous elections.
The last election to the State Duma, in 2011, sparked large and persistent protests against fraud that unsettled the government.
The demonstrations, many of them attracting upwards of 50,000 people, continued sporadically for five months before a clash between police and protesters resulted in hundreds of arrests, followed by strengthened laws to muffle public dissent.
One of the main targets in those protests was the former election commission head, Vladimir Churov, sarcastically dubbed "The Magician" for authorizing dubious results. Pamfilova's appointment likely will bolster the credibility of the results this time.
"The mistakes that were made during the previous campaigns, the lack of trust — you can't get over it quickly," Pamfilova told reporters this week. "We focused our effort to bring about change, get rid of the things that were broken in the previous campaigns and restore the level of trust."
The vote "is likely to be the cleanest election 1996," analyst Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Associated Press. "The authorities learned from the protests much more than the liberals did."
While tightening the limits on protests, the Kremlin also pushed through legislation that opens up the elections a bit. Previously, all 450 deputies in the lower house had been chosen by party list, in which seats are chosen in proportion to how much support a party received nationwide. Stifling regulations blocked many political groupings from even getting on the ballot.
Under the new rules, only half the seats will be party list; the other 225 are contested in specific districts. In addition, independent candidates can get on the ballot and the requirements for parties to participate were simplified; there are 14 parties on the ballot this year, twice as many as in 2011. But only 23 independents succeeded in getting on the ballot.
While the new system is more open, there is little expectation that the balance in parliament will change significantly. United Russia is expected to use its immense resources and dominance of the political landscape to boost its candidates in single-district races, which could increase its seats from the 238 — a majority — it currently holds.
Voter apathy appears substantial. A survey by the Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling agency, found in late August that 25 percent of the electorate either say they won't vote or are unsure if they will.
That survey of 1,600 people nationwide found that United Russia had the support of half of the likely voters, followed by the Communist Party with 15 percent, the nationalist Liberal Democrats at 14 percent and 9 percent support for A Just Russia — broadly in line with the current Duma composition. A party must win at least 5 percent of the vote nationwide to get a party-list seat; the survey, which claimed a 3.4 percent margin of error, did not find any other parties clearing the 5 percent level.
That would leave the new parliament, like the outgoing one, obedient to the Kremlin.
"They are his majesty's governing party and his majesty's opposition parties," Trenin said, referring to President Vladimir Putin's control of Russia's politics.
"Big change in Russia does not come when there's an election in the Duma and a somewhat different proportion in the parties in the Duma. It comes when there's a change at the top," Trenin said. The next presidential election is to be in 2018.
Outliers in the election include the liberal Yabloko party, which hasn't been represented in the Duma since 2006.
Party leader Grigory Yavlinsky says he wants to continue to compete for the Duma despite dim chances in order to show voters that change is possible.
"I really see that people are interested in what I am saying to them ... but they don't really feel there is an alternative and they simply don't believe it's possible to create an alternative in Russia," Yavlinsky told The Associated Press.
Nataliya Vasilyeva and Kate de Pury in Moscow contributed to this report.