MOSCOW – Russia and Venezuela will hold key elections with major implications for two rivals of U.S. influence and interests abroad who seek to strengthen their grip on internal power.
Russians voted Sunday in a parliamentary election so dominated by President Vladimir Putin's party that the only question was whether it would win a strong majority of seats or a gargantuan, crushing share.
Venezuelans will head to the polls to vote on a package of constitutional reforms that would allow '21 Century Socialist' President Hugo Chavez to run for re-election in South America's leading oil exporter past his current 2012 term limit.
Russia's election follows months of increasingly acidic rhetoric aimed against the West and efforts, by law and by truncheon, to stifle opponents.
A huge win for Putin's United Russia party could pave the way for him to stay at the country's helm once his presidential term expires in the spring. The party casts the election as essentially a referendum on Putin's nearly eight years in office. Many of its campaign banners that festoon the capital read "Moscow is voting for Putin."
"He's a good man. Any woman would love to see him in her house," said Polina Amanyeva, 58, at a Moscow polling station where she said she voted for United Russia.
Putin is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third consecutive term as president in March. But he clearly wants to keep his hand on Russia's levers of power, and has raised the prospect of becoming prime minister; many supporters have suggested his becoming a "national leader," though what duties and powers that would entail are unclear.
He said that a strong showing for the party Sunday would give him the moral right to ensure that politicians in power continue his policies. Recent opinion polls suggest the party could win up to 80 percent of seats.
The dominance of United Russia provoked a fatalistic attitude in some voters.
"I think the result was pretty much planned in advance. I don't know who I'll vote for; I'll decide when I get to the booth," said Ivan Kudrashov as he entered Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral for Sunday Mass.
Alexander Mikhailov, 39, said outside a polling station in Moscow that he wanted to vote for a "truly democratic party" and chose the liberal opposition Yabloko because "there is no other choice."
In Moscow, about 15 gay-rights activists were detained at a polling station after a protest in which they scrawled "No to homophobia" on their ballots.
The voting started in the Far Eastern regions of Chukotka and Kamchatka while Muscovites were preparing for bed late Saturday. It concludes in the western exclave of Kaliningrad at 1 p.m. EST Sunday.
The vote is the first national ballot under new election laws that have been widely criticized as marginalizing opposition forces. All the seats will be awarded proportionately to how much of the vote a party receives; in previous elections, half the seats were distributed among candidates contesting a specific district, which allowed a few mavericks to get in.
The new laws also say a party must receive at least 7 percent of the national vote to get any seats — up from the previous 5 percent. A poll by the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center in mid-November showed the Communists and two other parties hovering near the cutoff point.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, claim authorities have confiscated campaign materials and that the managers of halls have refused to rent them out for opposition meetings. Police have violently broken up opposition rallies — most recently in Moscow and St. Petersburg last weekend — and national television gives the parties hardly any coverage.
In contrast, Putin's speeches to supporters have been broadcast in full and repeated throughout evening newscasts.
Sunday's vote "meets none of the criteria of a free, fair and democratic election. In effect, it is not even an election," Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Putin, wrote in a commentary for the Cato Institute think tank.
Under Putin, Russia has become inundated with oil revenue, a nascent middle class is developing and the war against separatists in Chechnya has faded into sporadic, small clashes. Russia's newly assertive military policy and inclination to taunt and criticize the West appeals strongly to Russians who suffered physically and emotionally in the early post-Soviet years.
Disdain for the West has been one of the dominating themes of the election. Putin has called his opponents "foreign-fed jackals" and warned that Russia will not tolerate meddling from abroad.
All those factors contribute to strong support for United Russia. But with the competition stifled and the election result seen as a foregone conclusion, some of the 107 million eligible to vote could find apathy, inertia or simply the winter weather keeping them away from the ballot box.
"It's clear that the current election will only stabilize the interests for one man, who has already run the country for a long time," said Musa Isayev, a 40-year-old resident of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
There's no minimum turnout needed for the election to be valid — another change from previous elections — but a low number of voters could undermine Putin's claim that Russia is developing into a true democracy, albeit one with only passing resemblance to Western democracies.
Authorities throughout Russia's 11 time zones appear determined to ensure a sizable turnout, through pressure, persuasion and even presents. One region is offering young voters passes to pools and sports facilities; another says new housing will be built in whichever village shows the most "mature" turnout.
Teachers, doctors and other workers have complained that their bosses are ordering them to vote — usually with the implication that they should vote for United Russia.
With Russia showing an increasingly assertive military policy and with foreign hunger growing for Russia's oil, gas and minerals, the election is of strong interest overseas. But international organizations are not able to watch as closely as they had hoped.
The elections-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, regarded in the West as the most authoritative assessor of whether an election is fair, canceled plans to send observers. It said Russia had delayed granting visas for so long that the organization would be unable to conduct a meaningful assessment of election preparations.
Russia has criticized monitoring by the OSCE elsewhere in the former Soviet Union as supporting protests that forced leadership changes, but it denied that it was impeding operations in Russia. Putin claimed the pullout was initiated by the United States in an effort to discredit the elections and his government.
A total of about 300 observers from various international organizations were scheduled to monitor the voting, including some from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of Russia, China and ex-Soviet Central Asian republics.