Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday set December 2 as the date for parliamentary elections, seen as a dress rehearsal for the 2008 presidential vote.
Opinion polls indicate the parliamentary vote will again give Kremlin loyalists a big majority in the State Duma, the lower house which has rubber-stamped most of Putin's decisions during his seven-year rule.
"The President has signed the decree to hold the Duma elections on December 2nd," said a Kremlin spokeswoman on Sunday.
The vote may offer clues to whom Putin will endorse as his replacement when he steps down next year, almost assuring that candidate victory in the presidential vote.
Putin critics say the Duma election will also showcase the Kremlin's "managed democracy," with some opposition parties barred from taking part and others starved of coverage on state-run television.
Pro-Kremlin parties have more money and get more media coverage. Stringent new qualification requirements have excluded many opposition parties from the vote. The opposition also says new anti-extremism laws will be used to silence its campaign.
Putin's decree was largely a formality because the election is scheduled and the date was widely anticipated. But it means that official preparations for the vote can now get under way.
Pollster the Levada Centre in August gave 59 percent support to the United Russia party, which is staunchly pro-Kremlin. It performs well partly because voters associate it with stability and rising incomes under Putin.
The Communist Party was a distant second with 18 percent while Fair Russia, a new pro-Kremlin party, was on nine percent. The nationalist LDPR had seven percent, just enough to scrape over the threshold to qualify for Duma seats.
The focus in the run-up to the election is likely to be on which trio of politicians will lead the United Russia party list. A place in the top three could be a warm-up for a presidential bid.
Russian newspapers have speculated that Sergei Ivanov, a first deputy prime minister and favorite in the opinion polls to succeed Putin, might lead United Russia into the Duma vote.
Western governments, who worry that democratic freedoms in Russia are being eroded under Putin, will be watching to see if the vote is free and fair.
Last Mod: 02 Eylül 2007, 14:57