MOSCOW – His valor is extolled on billboards across the nation, and his daily feats dominate the television news. At a keynote election speech last week, his handlers even showcased a shimmying girl band singing an ode to that heartthrob in the Kremlin – “I want a man like Putin, full of strength!”
Thousands of candidates are vying on Sunday for seats in the next Parliament, but the election is really about only one politician, President Vladimir V. Putin.
After steadily securing control over Russia since taking office in 2000, Putin has transformed the election into a vote of confidence on his leadership and on the nation’s economic recovery, and he is throwing the full weight of his government and party machine into the fight.
But to many in the opposition, the fight does not seem entirely fair.
Opposition parties have been all but suffocated by strict new election laws, scant television coverage, curbs on organizing and criminal inquiries. Workers at government agencies and companies that receive state financing said their bosses were urging them to pull the lever for Putin’s party, United Russia.
A professor in Siberia, Dmitri Voronin, for example, said in an interview Wednesday that he and others at his university had been repeatedly called in by administrators and told that if they did not vote for United Russia, they would be dismissed.
An overwhelming victory for United Russia, which is all but assured, could embolden Putin to maintain power over the government after he formally leaves office next year. He cannot run for a third consecutive term, according to the Russian Constitution, and he has promised to abide by that rule.
But he has also said he will continue to exert influence over Russia after the presidential election in March. Whomever Putin endorses is most likely to become president, but he has not indicated a preference.
To make the case that Putin has rescued Russia after the crises of the 1990s, the Kremlin has relied on the sophisticated imagery seen in American campaigns.
Putin’s speech last week was at a rally that had the trappings of a Democratic or Republican convention at Madison Square Garden, with Putin shaking the hands of the faithful as he walked through the arena, just as American candidates do.
“Together, my friends, we have already done so much,” he told the crowd at the Luzhniki arena here. “We have strengthened the sovereignty and revived the integrity of Russia. We have revived the power of law and the supremacy of the Constitution.”
At the same time, the party has deployed stylish television commercials that make its opponents’ ads seem like high school productions.
The advertisements often appeal to patriotism, drawing an implicit contrast between the country’s current success, spurred by high oil prices, and the failings of the years after the fall of the Soviet Union that were scarred by economic collapse, crime and political chaos.
“Today, we are successful in politics, economics, arts, sciences, sports,” the announcer says in an ad to a stirring brass accompaniment and images of Putin and other smiling Russians.