(CNSNews.com) - Acting president and former KGB spy Vladimir Putin remains a clear favorite to win Russia's presidential elections Sunday, an event hailed by some as the country's first ever democratic leadership change.
Final opinion polls published Thursday predict more than 50 percent support for Putin, with little likelihood that a runoff vote will be needed.
A second round would be held on April 16 in the absence of a winner with an outright majority, or if voter turnout - traditionally above 60 percent - falls below 50 percent.
Earlier this week one of Putin's 11 challengers, Yevgeny Savostyanov, withdrew and endorsed another liberal, Grigory Yavlinsky of the Yabloko bloc, whom polls place in distant third position, behind Putin and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
Some analysts believe Zyuganov may also be on the decline. His party was almost unseated from its dominant position in the Duma in parliamentary elections last December, by a new bloc backed by Putin.
Reports say that, after failing to lead his party to victory for a decade, Zyuganov is seen as tired and uninspiring. Moreover, Putin has incorporated into his platform much of the nationalist sentiment, which was Zyuganov's drawcard in the past.
Much of Putin's popularity stems from his tough stance on Chechnya. He was relatively unknown until former President Boris Yeltsin made Putin his prime minister last August and acting president on the last day of 1999.
Abuses during Russia's war against Muslim Chechen rebels have drawn widespread criticism from the West, although the international community stopped short of imposing punitive economic measures on Moscow.
Putin, who is popular with Russian troops, visited the wartorn breakaway republic of Chechnya earlier this week, impressing soldiers and voters in general by arriving in Grozny in a Sukhoi fighter plane.
In the absence of a credible challenger to Putin, the campaign was enlivened only by a week-long legal battle by the outspoken ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky to be allowed to run as a candidate.
The Central Electoral Commission had earlier banned him from participating because he violated regulations by not declaring an apartment in his application. He finally won the right to run on March 7.
Cynical Russian media commentators suggested the episode was orchestrated by the Putin camp to stir up interest in an otherwise lackluster campaign, and prevent a situation in which apathetic voters would stay away, thus denying Putin a first-round victory.
The business daily Kommersant said: "It is common knowledge that what the Kremlin dreads most is people 'voting with their feet.' The fight against the thesis of a dull, no-choice election is a focus of attention of Putin's election campaigners."
About the only major foreign policy issue to stimulate the campaign debate arose from Putin's declaration to a British television interviewer earlier this month that he would not rule out the possibility of Russia joining NATO at some point. Putin subsequently played down the comment.
While liberal candidates welcomed Putin's statement and called for increased cooperation with the West, Zyuganov of the Communist Party slammed the remark as "a betrayal of all those who died on battlefields [and] a challenge to Beijing, Delhi and the entire Muslim world.
"It's not simply stupidity," said Zyuganov. "It's a crime against our nation and our entire history ... it spells the final collapse of the military industrial complex."
Left-wing parties advocate closer ties with former Soviet republics ahead of further rapprochement with the West.
And in his response, Zhirinovsky called for Russia to build closer partnerships with Iraq, Iran, Serbia, Libya, Armenia and Belarus.
Despite Russia's myriad problems, some observers believe a democratic culture is developing.
Addressing the U.S.-Russia Business Council earlier this week, Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said Sunday's election "will mark Russia's
first democratic transfer of power in its 1,000-year history.
"One of the most overlooked facts about this election is that democracy is becoming unchallenged in Russia as the way to select leaders," he said.
Less enthusiastic was Condoleeza Rice, chief foreign policy adviser for George W. Bush, who said in a wire service interview this week that there was "not ... much to celebrate about the election process" in Russia.
Critics say the fact Yeltsin handpicked his successor upon stepping down last December gave Putin a sizable advantage, and essentially left voters with little choice other than to back him or Zyuganov.