LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Russians are voting for a new leader today. President Vladimir Putin's chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, is all but certain to win in a huge landslide. However, opposition leaders say the election has been rigged. They're condemning the vote as a Soviet-style ritual that could lead Putin holding on to power from behind the scenes.
NPR's Gregory Feifer has more from Moscow.
GREGORY FEIFER: You'd think today would be Dmitri Medvedev's big day. Only a major surprise can keep him from winning the presidency. After all, Putin anointed his dapper young protege to be his chosen successor, and Medvedev's poll numbers have topped 70 percent. But despite all that, it's not Medvedev who's been making the headlines.
(Soundbite of horns honking)
FEIFER: Here on a building right next to Red Square in Central Moscow, a giant billboard advertising Medvedev's candidacy rises many stories high. Only what you see is Medvedev together with Putin dressed in a leather bomber jacket. Medvedev is smiling at something Putin is saying. The billboard reads, together we'll win, and it reflects something many believe about the election here. It's not about Russians picking whom they want to lead their country. The choice has been Putin's alone.
Putin may be stepping down as president because his term limit runs out but Medvedev says he wants to appoint Putin prime minister. Many believe he'll use the position to hold on to power.
To the last day of campaigning, Putin has remained very literally in the front seat. When he and Medvedev visited a military airbase last week and climbed into a plane's cockpit, it was Putin who took the pilot seat. Medvedev sat in the co-pilot's.
President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: And it was Putin who sternly announced Russia is boosting spending on defense by billions of dollars, partly to build a new state aircraft-manufacturing facility at the base. Medvedev, a former lawyer, sat upright in the audience listening attentively.
Such state visits by Putin and Medvedev have received the lion's share of news coverage on state-controlled national television. The other candidates have mostly been confined to short debates among themselves at odd hours of the day and limited television advertising.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man: (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: A commercial for the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov. He's Medvedev's closest competitor. Many believe Zyuganov is the only politician who approaches a real opposition figure in the election. But the Communist Party has long ceased being a political force in Russia. The other two candidates are a pro-Kremlin nationalist and a little known liberal party leader who many believe is backed by a Kremlin trying to create the appearance of a real contest.
All major Kremlin critics have been barred from the election, including former Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov. He's joined other opposition leaders in calling for Russians to boycott the ballot.
Mr. MIKHAIL KASYANOV (Former Prime Minster, Russia): It's a non-election. It's simply a farce imitation of important democratic institution. And election are not free because there is no access for people to nominate their candidate. Elections without choice, that's not an election.
FEIFER: But while the result of today's vote is a foregone conclusion, what happens next isn't. During his rule Putin has kept control in the hands of a very powerful president, while his prime ministers have been completely subservient. However, during a news conference last month, Putin made it clear matters could change.
Pres. PUTIN: (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: Putin said the constitution gives the prime minister great powers, including the ability to form the country's budget and oversee its defense. He said the president may be the guarantor of the constitution but that the prime minister is the country's highest executive.
It's unclear how Medvedev will act once he's in office. He'll have the power to fire the prime minister and dismiss parliament. But many here believe today's election is only a formality. Part of the Kremlin's plan to keep real power in the hands of Vladimir Putin.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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