When Russians go to vote tomorrow, four of the five names on the ballot paper will be familiar from previous presidential elections. So, too, is the result likely to be. Vladimir Putin, who has held the office of Prime Minister for the past four years after serving the maximum two consecutive terms as President, is so far ahead in the opinion polls as to be thought uncatchable. Even the prospect of his being forced into a second round now seems remote.
That both the names and the result hark back to old times, however, should deceive no one. The political context in which this election is being held is less stable, and the longer-term outcome less predictable than at any recent Russian election, perhaps even since the fall of Soviet communism.
Instead of being welcomed as a token of continued stability, Mr Putin's decision to stand for the presidency again prompted an outcry from Russians who felt that they were being taken for granted. It was a move that may be seen, with the benefit of hindsight, as a miscalculation of historic proportions. On 24 September, the day when he received the presidential nomination of Russia's governing United Russia party, the balance of power between Mr Putin and the Russian public changed – and not in the way he or his officials surely calculated. The objections were spearheaded by new middle-class professionals in one of the most hopeful developments in Russia for years. At parliamentary elections in December, voters registered their misgivings, leaving United Russia short of an overall majority in the Duma, and firing a warning shot across Mr Putin's bow. Charges of widespread rigging brought protesters on to the streets.
The latest polls suggest Mr Putin will be elected on Sunday with about 60 per cent of the vote – less than the 70 per cent endorsement he has been used to, but still a safe majority. Both Mr Putin's victory and the likely gap between him and the other candidates, however, constitute an indictment of how Russian politics has failed to advance in the almost two decades since the end of communism.
Any opposition to established power has been weak, fragmented and stuck in a transitional phase. The protests that have rumbled on in Russia between September and now are the best indicators that this may be about to change. The question is whether those in power will be inclined, or even able, to change, too. The first requirement is that tomorrow's elections be genuinely free and fair. That itself would be a welcome first. As reports of manipulation, bribery, ballot-stuffing and other abuses mount, however, it is hard to be optimistic on that score.
The next test will be how the Kremlin deals with the protests that could well follow. Will it take the more tolerant – and thoroughly positive – approach the Moscow city authorities have adopted to demonstrations since December, or reinforce the intimidation it has recently applied against certain individual opponents and media organisations, including the radio station Ekho Moskvy? Will it seize on Mr Putin's new mandate as the cue to clamp down, or – dare one hope – ease up?
In a series of newspaper articles published during the campaign, Mr Putin set out what amounted to a manifesto. There were signs here that he recognises the emergence of a new mood in Russia, but not the scale of the political transformation that will be needed if the expectations of Russia's post-Soviet generation are to be met. Keeping up with the pace of change will be the central challenge of President Putin's third term.