Even if Sunday's Russian presidential election were fair, Vladimir Putin would win. He is incontestably popular, with approval ratings above 70 percent for the four years of his first term.
But the election, while superficially honest, will be deeply unfair. In a sense it will be a rerun of December's parliamentary elections, in which pro-democracy, pro-West parties were reduced to just seven seats.
Putin has used his control of government agencies and the broadcast media to marginalize his opponents. Others he either jailed or forced into exile. He faces no meaningful political opposition.
Still, he has remained committed to market reforms. His inner circle has been free of the kind of corruption that characterized the presidency of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. And Russia has enjoyed significant economic growth under Putin. His crackdown on the oligarchs who enriched themselves when communism fell, while legally questionable, has proved popular.
The only question mark about Sunday's balloting is voter turnout. Under Russian law, if the turnout is under 50 percent the election doesn't count and has to be rerun. Characteristically, Putin is taking no chances. He has used the machinery of government to ensure adequate participation. In one reported instance, hospitals were told not to admit patients for the weekend who had not voted by absentee ballot.
Putin's turn toward authoritarianism is troubling. This is Russia's third presidential election, and it is still a genuine election — but one that demonstrates that democracy in Russia is still a work in progress.