Russians are going to the polls for the first parliamentary elections since a disputed vote in 2011 triggered the biggest protests of President Vladimir Putins more than decade-and-a-half rule.

The pro-Putin United Russia party is expected to emerge from Sundays ballot with an ever increasing majority, as election officials seek to avoid the unrest that was activated by widespread allegations of vote-rigging five years ago. The format of the election has been changed, with the restoration of single-member constituencies for half of the Dumas 450 seats seen as favoring the ruling party, while new restrictions limit access for local observers to monitor the vote.

We equal conditions for an open and fair competition by all participants, Putin said in a televised statement broadcast nationwide a few days before the vote. Im convinced that we all want to see worthy, competent, energetic and honest people in the State Duma.

Putin, 63, is widely expected to seek re-election in March 2018. Anger over ballot-stuffing in 2011 sparked huge protests that continued through his return to the Kremlin in 2012. The authorities reacted with new laws to suppress the opposition movement, including incarcerating activists. Putins popularity also hit record highs on a upsurge of patriotism after he annexed Crimea in 2014, even as international sanctions helped push the economy into recession. Still, the Kremlins concerned to prevent fraud allegations marring this tournament and spurring a new wave of opposition to him.

Exit Polls

Exit poll findings are due to be released at 9 p. m. Moscow time, with most official outcomes expected by Monday morning. The latest sentiment surveys showed United Russias support falling to 40 percentage from 60 percentage 18 months ago as Russians suffer the longest recession in two decades provoked by the breakdown in oil prices. It won around 50 percent of the vote in 2011, gaining 238 seats in the parliament.

Putin picked a long-time human-rights advocate, Ella Pamfilova, earlier this year to oversee the elections, while Russia has also invited about 500 commentators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But he also toughened restrictions on the work of Russian election monitors and set up a paramilitary force of 340,000 troops in a new National Guard whose tasks include inhibiting mass demonstrations.

Golos, an independent Russian vote-monitoring group, had to cut its presence in half compared to 2011 to 3,000 -4, 000 commentators because of the new restrictions, said its co-chairman, Grigory Melkonyants. Monitors are now required to register 72 hours in advance at specific polling stations.

Time Zones

Voting across the 11 period zones of the worlds largest country started at 8 a. m. local hour( 11 p.m. Saturday Moscow time) in the far eastern Chukhotka Peninsula opposite Alaska. It will end at 8 p. m. in Kaliningrad, Russias westernmost territory, one hour behind Moscow. About 111 million people were registered to vote at 94,000 polling stations.

While vote-counting will be relatively clean in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the largest protests took place after the 2011 elections, anything could happen in areas where there are no observers, Melkonyants said.

Surveys by the independent Levada Center depict a third of Russians are dissatisfied at the direction the country is take, amid declining real wages and budget cuts in a second year of a recession thats pushed millions into poverty. The same polls show that merely about a tenth of respondents are willing to protest for their rights.

Even so, the authorities concerned are taking no chances and ensured the governing party get most election coverage on country television and predominated access to voters in campaigning, Melkonyants said.

New Leadership

A preliminary report by the OSCEs commentator mission noted the low key campaign and complaints about misuse of administrative resources. It also welcomed the new leadership of the Central Electoral Commission, simplified enrollment for parties and the fact that independent nominees have been allowed to stand for election.

Still, with at most a handful of opposition lawmakers likely to get elected, Putin can count on preserving the status quo in parliament, where United Russia and three other loyalist parties — the Communist, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Fair Russia — currently have all the seats.

The Kremlin is feeling quite calm, said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscows Higher School of Economics. Itll be satisfied if these four parties maintain their grip on the Duma.

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