MOSCOW — Rising discontent over corruption and a lack of real political reform ahead of Sunday's presidential election could force Vladimir Putin into a run-off as he seeks to secure a third term in the Kremlin.
But even if that were to happen, few here believe Mr. Putin would have cause to worry over any of his four presidential rivals, whose credentials as genuine opposition candidates have all been called into question.
"Those candidates that are not in the Kremlin's pocket are slapping at it and trying to get in," said Alexei Mukhin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, a think tank. "It's a warm and cozy place, and there is plenty of money inside."
State-run pollster VTsIOM has predicted that Mr. Putin, the current prime minister, would win about 59 percent of the vote in the March 4 election.
His closest rival is Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose polling numbers have swung between 10 percent and 15 percent.
Mr. Zyuganov, 67, has taken part in every presidential election but one since 1996, when he forced eventual winner Boris Yeltsin into a run-off.
But he has failed to offer a serious challenge since then, finishing a distant second every time he has run.
"He is afraid of winning," political analyst Valery Khomyakov said. "Both the party and its leader have found their niche as the main opposition force and it doesn't appear as if they are ready to go beyond these limits."
Mr. Zyuganov has offered a more animated campaign this time around, even signing a cooperation deal with the radical Left Front movement's young leader, Sergei Udaltsov, one of the figureheads of the anti-Putin demonstrations.
Yet Mr. Zyuganov's position as the candidate most likely to face Mr. Putin in a run-off has caused a dilemma among anti-government protesters.
"If there's going to be a run-off election between Vladimir Putin and Gennady Zyuganov, should you vote for the communist leader?" said Andrei Kolesnikov in his column for the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper.
"How could an educated, forward-thinking person with steadfast democratic convictions and clear-cut moral principles vote for Putin? There's no way. But how could such a person, on the other hand, vote for Zyuganov?"
Mr. Putin, 59, served as president from 2000 to 2008, when he was forced to step down by the constitution. He handed over power to his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and took up the post of prime minister.
Still, he has remained the county's most powerful politician, incurring the wrath of demonstrators and critics who bemon the country's economic disparities and his government's corruption and backsliding on democratic reforms.
A former KGB officer, Mr. Putin is expected to win the presidential contest, but protests and charges of fraud in his party's victory in legislative elections in November were seen to have weakened his image. A run-off election would further weaken his standing.
A survey by the independent Levada Center showed that just under 40 percent of Russian would vote for Mr. Putin. A candidate needs to secure more than 50 percent the votes to win outright in the first round.
Mr. Putin's second-closest rival, with about 10 percent in polls, is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a 65-year-old nationalist who in the past has threatened to seize Alaska from the United States and launch nuclear weapons at Japan if elected president.
A belligerent and at times incoherent politician, Mr. Zhirinovsky terrified many in 1993 when his ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) took first place in Russia's parliamentary elections.
That was the peak of his popularity, and he has never secured more than 10 percent of the vote in presidential polls, a showing that analysts say Mr. Zhirinovsky is more than satisfied with.
"He knows he shouldn't get more, because if he tries to get even 15 percent, then he will be seen as a serious opponent," said analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "But this isn't in his interests. He has no political ambitions, only financial ones."
Mr. Zhirinovsky's election campaign has been typically bizarre, featuring a video clip of him whipping a donkey to illustrate how he would "get the country moving."
He also has proposed cloning famous Russians, such as 19th-century composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
The oligarch and the 'back-up'
A new face in the election is tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, 46, who has an estimated fortune of $18 billion.
The former metals magnate and majority owner of the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association has vowed to tackle corruption and red tape, if elected, and is the only opposition candidate to have appeared at protest rallies.
However, his decision to run came as a surprise to many, not least because he previously had gone on record as saying he believed Mr. Putin is "the only one" capable of leading Russia.
Some see Mr. Prokhorov's candidacy as part of a Kremlin plot to divide the opposition.
His status as an oligarch, one of the businessmen who divvied up the country's wealth during the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, also means many ordinary Russians distrust him.
But others suggest his wealth is good reason to vote for him.
"He wouldn't be tempted by corruption, mainly because he's already rich enough," said business journalist Anastasia Markitan. "He'd be like an effective CEO, if elected."
That seems unlikely: Mr. Prokhorov's poll ratings are around 5 percent in both state-run and independent surveys.
Another candidate, former upper-house leader Sergei Mironov, 58, also has similarly low polling figures and arguably the least credibility of all candidates.
He gained less than 1 percent at the 2004 election, the only other time he has run, and said ahead of voting that he believed Mr. Putin was the best man for president.
He also as much as admitted his participation is the Kremlin's "back-up" in case all the other candidates pulled out. This time, he has positioned himself as a left-leaning anti-Putin reformer, but few are convinced.
Several other would-be candidates were denied registration for the polls, including liberal politician Grigory Yavlinksy, who also enjoys the support of around five percent of Russians.
Mr. Yavlinksy has alleged he was refused registration after announcing plans to train and send thousands of monitors to polling stations on election day.
"We want to see Yavlinsky on the ballot paper," protest leader and opposition figure Boris Nemtsov said before a recent anti-government rally. "That would at least make the polls at least seem like real elections — all the other candidates rely on Putin, to some extent or another."