Ahead of the March election, Russia's Vladimir Putin has done next to no campaigning and all his public appearances have been highly choreographed
Moscow (AFP) - Running with a lacklustre slogan, no programme and refusing to debate his opponents, it sometimes seems like Russian President Vladimir Putin is not campaigning for re-election at all.
But it is unlikely to matter for the 65-year-old strongman who is cruising towards victory and a historic fourth Kremlin term in next month's election, with a result that seems so inevitable analysts are calling it a return to the Soviet era.
"Putin is the only candidate without a programme. That is extremely alarming," said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, describing it as "a demonstration of disregard for his people."
As always, Putin has bowed out of debates and has symbolically refused his free television airtime as a candidate.
But he already benefits from wall-to-wall news coverage, and Channel One state television has been rebroadcasting Oliver Stone's four-part documentary about him although it won't show the last episode until after the vote following a slap on the wrist from the electoral commission.
The most visible sign of his campaign are the images of him plastered on billboards along highways outside Moscow under the slogan: "A strong president makes for a strong country."
Generic posters from the Central Electoral Commission urging people to vote are everywhere.
Putin's main task is to ensure a respectable turnout, with state pollsters VTsIOM predicting 80.4 percent although last time, participation was just over 65 percent.
- 'The most meaningless poll' -
"We have returned to what we had hoped to leave behind after the collapse of Soviet power: ritualistic elections where... the result is pre-programmed," wrote columnist Fyodor Krasheninnikov in the independent weekly, The New Times.
And others agree.
"This is the most meaningless of all the presidential polls in Russia, the most lacking in substance," said Kolesnikov.
So far, the most striking moment of Putin's "campaign" was when he joined millions of Orthodox Christians in plunging into an ice hole wearing swimming trunks for the January's Epiphany holiday.
He has since skipped several events this week after coming down with a rare cold.
Functions he has attended have been highly choreographed such as a recent meeting with local mayors, when Putin was choppered in, met with a star-struck few as journalists watched on a screen from another room.
Although the numbers planning to vote for him have dipped from last year's high of 76.9 percent, Putin still commands a 71.5 percent of support, VTsIOM figures show.
For pro-Kremlin observers, Putin's campaign is laying the ground for his future term and eschewing stunts that would only gain him a few points in the election.
"We see real hands-on work that has significantly greater results than populist fussing around for the sake of an extra one to two percent in elections," said Nikolai Kalmykov of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
- Colourful cast -
With opposition leader Alexei Navalny barred from standing due to a fraud conviction, he is urging his supporters -- many of them young -- to boycott the polls.
The latest VTsIOM polls suggest the lowest turnout is likely to be among 18 to 24-year-olds.
Among those running against Putin are two new colourful characters who may have a political future ahead of them.
Ksenia Sobchak, a former reality show host turned liberal journalist, is standing on a "none of the above" ticket and has called for Navalny to be allowed on the ballot.
While she is forecast to come a distant fourth, this outspoken daughter of Saint Petersburg's former mayor -- Putin's political mentor -- is one of the few people who doesn't fear him, and sparks could fly if they were to meet.
Another is debonair businessman Pavel Grudinin, the little-known director of an agribusiness who was chosen as the Communist candidate in December after veteran leader Gennady Zyuganov chose not to stand.
The moustachioed 57-year-old businessman, who has praised Stalin, scored well in early polls, prompting a wave of negative coverage from state and pro-Kremlin media over fears he could do better than planned, observers said.
If the vote were held today, he would win 7.3 percent, polls show.
"There is a campaign and it does have an element of intrigue... Sobchak and Grudinin," said Kolesnikov, who said the polls would test Sobchak's potential for leading a liberal party and Grudinin's to take over from Zyuganov.