MOSCOW Russia began voting today in a parliamentary election where the only question is whether President Vladimir Putin's party will win merely a strong majority of seats or a gargantuan, crushing share.
The 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."
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 today 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 voting started in the Far Eastern regions of Chukotka and Kamchatka. It concludes in the western exclave of Kaliningrad at 1 p.m. EST today.
The vote is the first national ballot under new election laws that have been widely criticized as marginalizing opposition forces.