Russia's Duma elections take place today. In a September 15 television address, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Russian citizens to vote, saying: "I count on your responsible and carefully-considered position as citizens. I call on you to come to the polling stations, cast your votes and express your views. I am sure that no matter what our political views, participation in the voting is the civic duty of each and every one of us and an expression of our sincere feelings for our country and concern for its future." He added: "Make your choice and vote for Russia!"
Russians will elect the 450 members of the State Duma (lower house of parliament), whose term in office has been extended to five years according to the 2008 constitutional amendments. The electoral system used in the present elections is mixed: 225 (half) of the Duma members are elected by proportional representation from party lists with a 5% electoral threshold, and the other half are elected in a first-past-the-post system. Russians will also elect other representatives today, at the federal, regional and municipal levels: 38 regional parliaments, six heads of regions, and municipal councilors.
The Democratic Opposition Is Divided
While the ruling United Russia (UR) party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia party are expected to gain seats in the Duma, the democratic opposition is divided. Ahead of the election, well-known anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, head of the Progress Party (which has been barred from the elections), pointed out that in many single-seat electoral districts, multiple candidates from the democratic opposition are running and thus reducing each other's chances of winning a seat. Writing on his blog, he presented a chart showing that in most such districts there are two democratic opposition candidates - usually one from the Yabloko party and another from the PARNAS party. In the Central Administrative District (CAD) there are also two candidates: Maria Baronova, endorsed by the Open Russia party (founded by oil tycoon-turned-activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky), and Prof. Andrey Zubov, endorsed by the democratic parties Yabloko and PARNAS. Navalny suggested that in all such districts only one candidate should remain, and asked Baronova to withdraw from the race. If those inflexible parties [Yabloko and PARNAS] have reached a compromise [by running a joint candidate], it should be encouraged, not sabotaged," he said.
Baronova responded to Navalny's initiative on the website of the Russian liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta: "I did not mean to stand in the way of other democratic candidates [vying] for a seat in my district, such as Prof. Andrey Borisovich Zubov from the PARNAS party. It just so happened that our democratic partners asked me to run in the CAD and not anywhere else, and then all of a sudden everybody discovered they needed this district. I'm sorry, but the sociologists [at the independent national polling organization] Levada Center indicated that my results would twice as high as those of the Professor's. That's ok, it happens. There is nothing tragic about it. It will not prevent the democrats from being united one day." She added: "My voters and Zubov's voters are different people. Andrey Borisovich is a Christian conservative. I am a liberal Centrist with socialist leanings. Most of my voters would never vote for Zubov, and vice versa."
Baronova emphasized that the Duma elections are a chance for the democratic forces to demonstrate their strength. She stated, however, that today's election "would not be a real election for the real State Duma," because there would be about 20 independent candidates in the parliament at most, "and most of their time will be consumed by crazy new draft laws."
It should be noted that there were several attempts to unite the opposition, none of them successful. In the beginning of the year, Navalny agreed to cooperate with the PARNAS party. Representatives of his unregistered Progress Party were to participate in the PARNAS primaries. However the cooperation ended when the head of the PARNAS party, former minister of finance and prime minister under Vladimir Putin Mikhail Kasyanov, was embroiled in a sex-tape scandal involving his personal political assistant, Natalia Pelevina. In the 40-minute tape, Kosyanov and Pelevina were heard discussing Navalny in humiliating terms. Another factor that contributed to the crisis between Navalny and PARNAS was that Kasyanov proclaimed himself head of PARNAS without participating in the primaries. Navalny also attempted to form a coalition with Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, but this initiative failed as well.
It should also be mentioned that Navalny was accused by some liberal journalists of playing into the Kremlin's hands by pursuing personal goals. His call for Maria Baronova and other candidates to withdraw from the electoral race was perceived by some as an attempt to sow dissent among the opposition. 
Cartoon in Novaya Gazeta (Novayagazeta.ru, September 9, 2016)
Communist Party (CPRF): UR Is Waging A "Dirty Provocation Campaign" Against Us
Opposition parties have accused the ruling party United Russia (UR), which is expected to win the majority of votes in the election, of using "dirty tricks" in its campaign in order to secure its victory. Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), stated that this electoral campaign was one of dirtiest since the fall of Soviet Union. In a communiqué published on its website, the CPRF accused UR of hooliganism against its members. The statement read: "...United Russia expresses confidence in its unqualified electoral victory despite the worsening crisis, the appalling corruption and the rapid impoverishment of the people, [and] despite its inability to stem these processes. What makes the authorities so sure of another electoral triumph? First of all, [UR's] conviction that the [Russian] citizens, while experiencing all the negative consequences of the crisis, are still not aware of the true scale of the consequences. They do not see... the direct link between what is happening and the essence of the socioeconomic system - a system that the representatives of the 'ruling party' and the establishment propagandists are once again urging them to preserve with their votes...
"Aware of its helplessness and its inability to win in a fair contest, the ruling party is waging a dirty provocation campaign against the CPRF. [For example, by]... creating spoiler parties [parties created to prevent the opposition from gaining parliamentary seats] and [circulating] a huge number of fake newspapers ostensibly published by the CPRF... Party activists are being pressured... There have been reports of attacks on them, including with the use of firearms. Provocateurs [infiltrate] the meetings of our candidates in their constituencies and commit acts of hooliganism. The list of outrageous facts is growing day by day, and they fail to be properly assessed by the representatives of government bodies. All this shows that the machine of fabrication is ready to do its dirty work and this gives us serious cause for concern.
"[Another] important fact is that, today, at UR's prompting, regulations for journalist access to the elections have been tightened, the number of observers has been dramatically cut, and the procedure of [registering] them as observers has become much more complicated. This creates [convenient] conditions for all forms of abuse."
CPRF election poster: "Power is [Sexually] Arousing"
Khodorkovsky.com: 'UR Members Have Been Caught Destroying 'Unfriendly' Campaign Materials'
According to a report on the English-language website of Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, UR activists been destroying campaign materials of rival parties in violation of the election laws. The report said: "August 17 saw the publication in Moscow of a million (!) copies of a newspaper entitled The Capital of United Russia. Even a cursory leaf-through will suffice to confirm that it consists entirely of agitprop in its purest form; the paper, however, is registered as a mass media publication, and the people behind it can therefore claim that legislation regarding campaign materials doesn't apply to it. Having familiarized themselves with United Russia's handiwork, opposition party Yabloko complained in the following terms to the Central Electoral Commission: 'The law states that campaign materials may feature no photographs save for those of election candidates, and yet this newspaper has used images of other individuals (Putin, for one. - Ed.), some of whom are minors... The newspaper also features materials promising benefits to voters exclusively as a result of the actions of United Russia. There is evidence of vote-buying here.' And although the CEC swiftly pledged to investigate, the paper, whose million copies can never be recalled, has already fulfilled its function.
"United Russia's Moscow branch has been very busy making phone calls. Individuals presenting themselves as United Russia campaign HQ personnel call up Muscovites on their landlines and mobiles - and proceed to ask 'leading questions:' 'It's very important to support Russia in this difficult time for our country, do you agree that we should all be voting for United Russia?'... Opposition candidates are meanwhile striving to prove their worth in personal meetings with citizens. In Moscow, the authorities have responded to these activities in a largely calm manner (customary provocateurs notwithstanding); in St Petersburg, however, it's a different matter... The regions are no better. In Samara Region, current governor Nikolai Merkushkin had previously been head of the republic of Mordovia, where he was able to guarantee eye-popping showings for United Russia (93.4% of the vote in 2007, 91.6% four years later). Keen to put on a good show this time round as well, Merkushkin has thrown his full support behind United Russia, mobilizing all his available administrative resources to this end. [Russian daily] Kommersant reports that, on its return from Samara, a Presidential Human Rights Council election monitoring group called attention to the blatantly unbalanced allocation of airtime and column inches in the region's state-controlled media...
"There are far fewer opposition billboards in evidence around Russia today than in the run-up to previous major elections. This isn't merely to do with the fact that these are crisis times, and that expensive outdoor advertising can easily be replaced by web banners. The real explanation is that, in Moscow, many advertising operators are simply refusing to put party posters on street billboards...UR personnel have been caught destroying 'unfriendly' campaign materials on several occasions over the course of the campaign. Back in Samara, for example, the local administration actually recruits special night brigades for this very purpose, with briefing sessions held directly at United Russia's campaign HQ. A resourceful 'recruit' managed to make an audio recording of one such event, where would-be brigade members were told the following: 'Elections sometimes involve breaking the law. We can't be the ones to break it. We need people who'd act independently of us, who'd be unconnected to us in any way - and that's where you lot come in.'"
Defaced election posters (image: Khodorkovsky.com)
 Kremlin.ru, September 15, 2016.
 On September 5, Russia's Justice Ministry announced it had listed Levada Center as a "foreign agent." According to Igor Yakovenko, a columnist for Everyday Journal, one reason for the ministry's decision was remarks made by Levada's managers against the Russian authorities. Commenting on the official Ministry of Justice press release, Yakovenko wrote: "[Levada] CEO Gudkov has openly referred to the authorities as 'corrupt and as operating in a mafia-like style.' Moreover, he said that... the Russian system of power 'is a closed authoritarian system, where the authorities rely on power structures, oligarchs and the bureaucracy and represent their interests." However, according to Yakovenko, the main reason behind the ministry's decision was the center's recently-published survey indicating that Russia's ruling party had only a 31% approval rating, while the state polling agencies put its approval rating at 41-45%. Ej.ru, September 7, 2016.
 The-village.ru, September 12, 2016.
 Politonline.ru, April 1, 2016.
 Gazeta.ru, April 28, 2016.
 Novayagazeta.ru, May 21, 2016.
 Newdaynews.ru, September 15, 2016.
 Efe.com, September 14, 2016.
 Khodorkovsky.com, September 12, 2016.