Russian election - AFP - 04032012
An election official adjusting a ballot box at a polling station in Moscow Saturday. Photo by AFP
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MOSCOW - One of the trendiest things to be in Russia today, as the country goes to the polls to elect its next president, is an election observer. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed up for the task. They represent political parties - including some 20,000 from United Russia, the party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former president and current presidential hopeful - as well as nongovernmental organizations and unaffiliated concerned citizens.

They, in concert with the two web cameras placed in each of the country's 95,000 polling stations (one giving a general view and the other focused on the ballot box ) after claims of widespread fraud in December's parliamentary election, are Putin's weapon against allegations of deceit in Sunday's vote. The webcams enable anyone in Russia with computer access to monitor the balloting process.

A slight ambience of anarchy pervades Moscow these day, thanks to the recent anti-Putin demonstrations. The wall of one building in the city features Putin, wearing a Hitler mustache, cutting the word "revolution" with scissors. The walls of subway passages are filled with anti-United Russia graffiti.

Polling stations open at 8 A.M. and close at 8 P.M. The opposition's main concern is that the results will be massaged during the tallying process, away from the prying eyes of the election observers and the webcam lenses, after the cartons of ballot slips are transported from the polling places.

Voter turnout of 60 percent to 70 percent is anticipated. Former deputy prime minister and current opposition activist Boris Nemtsov joked that in areas like Chechnya voter participation would exceed 120 percent once again.

The latest public opinion polls give Putin a comfortable victory, with 66 percent of the vote. His party has sunk 368 million rubles (about $13 million ) into the campaign, compared to the 319 million rubles of Mikhail Prokhorov, who is expected to garner just six percent of the vote.

Just one vote over 50 percent will be enough to avoid a runoff election. Putin, in a meeting with Western newspaper editors, has said he would would offer the post of prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev - no surprise there. Putin attributed this "reasonable" arrangement to his desire to allow Medvedev to complete his reform plan, and also promised not to take harsher measures against the opposition.

But there's one area where he isn't making any promises. Putin "reassured" the nation when he said he had not decided to run for a second (or fourth, depending on how you count ) term in 2018.

Fear and loathing in Moscow

Last night opposition figures were still arguing over whether to tell their supporters to invalidate their ballot forms in protest, or to vote for one of the four other candidates. "The opposition's main goal today is to get enough observers together to ensure a fair vote count," prominent opposition activist Alexei Navalny told Haaretz. "We put a lot of time into training the observers, and judging by the signals we have been getting it seems the extent of the fraud will exceed that of the elections to the Duma. After the election we will concentrate on grassroots activity," Navalny said.

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