Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
United Russia, a party closely tied to President Vladimir Putin and heavily salted with regional power barons, looks set to consolidate its grip on power in parliamentary elections tomorrow that could determine Mr. Putin's political future.
But the campaign, in which United Russia has dominated the state-controlled media coverage while dodging candidate debates and difficult issues, hardly has proven an attractive advertisement for Russia's fledgling democracy.
"It's a big step backward," said Anders Aslund, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"United Russia has run basically a contentless campaign, whose only program is support for President Putin. Many rival candidates have been thrown out on the tiniest technicalities, and it looks as if the government is even faking the opinion polls in order to steal the election," he added.
About 450 seats are up for grabs in the State Duma, the lower and more powerful house of Russia's legislature. Half the seats will be decided in single-district votes, and the other half will be distributed proportionally, based on how each of the 23 parties fare in a separate voter-preference ballot.
The latest polls indicate that United Russia, which bills itself the "party of power" and whose party list is topped by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, a powerful Putin ally, will build substantially on its 142-seat Duma faction, with the Communist Party and its allies struggling to hold their 127 seats.
Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Liberal Democratic Party places third in the polls, but the country's two best-known Western-oriented liberal parties - the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko - are struggling just to obtain the minimum 5 percent needed to retain their seats in the Duma.
The polls and recent special elections also point to rising voter apathy, reflecting the dreary level of debate in the campaign and the dominance of Mr. …