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Early voting at Russia’s presidential polls due on March 4 started in remote and hard-to-reach areas of the country on Friday. Usually, slightly more than one percent of eligible voters take part in such early voting. Neither supporters nor opponents of the shoo-in for the presidential office, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have any doubts he will be back in the Kremlin. The question is whether he will need a runoff or not. The latest opinion polls say he might do it in the first round.In the mean time, the presidential campaign is in full swing and, unlike all previous ones, is drawing big public interest – both the opposition and supporters of the authorities are taking to streets throughout Russia.Five candidates are running for Russian president. They are leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the A Just Russia party Sergei Mironov, self-nominee billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, nominated by the ruling United Russia party.Opposition candidates are again lamenting over being barred from television. The authorities, they say, are using their so-called ‘administrative resource.’ This week, Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky voiced protest over long odds they are given in the election canvassing. Addressing the State Duma lower parliament house, the two said there are no actual competition between the candidates, since federal television channels offer incomparably wide coverage of Putin’s activities.According to a research ordered by the Communist Party and posted on its website, Zyuganov’s share of the air on federal television channels was six percent in the period from February 2 to February 11, while Putin’s share was ten times as big.But most of canvassing is taking place on the streets of Russian cities rather than on air. Thus, as many as five concurrent political rallies are planned for February 23 in Moscow. The biggest of them will be in support of Vladimir Putin. It is expected to draw up to 100,000, although the initial target was to draw 200,000. Other candidates have also applied for permits to hold actions on February 23.Off-parliament opposition is not dawdling away either. On February 19, a car rally will be held along Moscow’s downtown Garden Ring under the slogan “Drive out Putin on March 4,” and thousands of opposition-minded Muscovites are going to stand hand-in-hand making a circle along the Garden Ring on February 26.The key subject of the current campaign is proper monitoring of the voting – mass opposition rallies in Moscow in December and February were held under the slogan For Fair Elections. Finally, the rallies gave birth to the League of Voters, which sees its goal in keeping an eye on the observance of people’s electoral rights.The League’s activists have set off for Russian regions to clarify to people election monitoring procedures. Similar ideas are voiced by popular TV personalities and politician who say they are going to monitor the March 4 voting as observers. This week, the League of Voters signed agreements on cooperation in election monitoring with Zyuganov and Prokhorov.Meanwhile, sociologists predict Putin’s victory already in the first round. According to the All-Russia Public Opinion Centre (VCIOM), as many as 54.7 percent of Russians will vote for Putin. The Public Opinion Fund puts the number of Putin’s supports at 50 percent.According to VCIOM, Zyuganov is to score 9.2 percent of the vote, Zhirinovsky – eight percent, Prokhorov – 5.8 percent, and Mironov – five percent. As many as 8.1 percent of the polled said they would not take part in the polls, and 8.4 percent have not made up their minds yet.The Public Opinion Fund polls demonstrate that nine percent of votes are going to support Zyuganov, seven percent will vote in support of Zhirinovsky, four percent – in support of Prokhorov, and two percent – will support Mironov. Eighteen percent of the respondents are still undecided, and nine percent are not willing to vote at all.Both opinion centres say the number of those who will vote for Putin is going up.People are influenced by “the candidate’s active communications policies,” The Kommersant daily cites VCIOM director general Valery Fyodorov. Only Prokhorov attracts new potential voters due to the “novelty” effect.Putin is popular among passive voters who have not yet decided whom to cast their votes for, says Alexander Oslon, the director of the Public Opinion Centre. “Putin has been at the help of power for years, moreover he has been proving his viability, and this is the key criterion people are using to assess a politician,” he said.According to the Public Opinion Fund, Putin’s voters are primarily women, the elder and low-paid people whose wages are less than 20,000 roubles.“In a bid to win more votes in Putin’s support, people are bullied by the chaos of the 1990s, by an ‘orange revolution,’ or by foreign influences,” Alexei Grazhdankin, a deputy director of the Levada-Centre opinion agency, told the Kommersant. “Fear appeal is a right method in terms of political technologies.”The Nezavisimaya Gazeta however writes that the latest parliamentary elections graphically demonstrated impotence of Russia’s sociology. All the three leading opinion agencies – the VCIOM, the Public Opinion Centre and the opposition-oriented Levada-Centre – predicted that United Russia would score at least 50 percent of the vote. In fact, according to independent expert estimates, it gained from 38 to 40 percent.
MOSCOW, February 17.