MOSCOW: With little doubt that Vladimir Putin would win with a landslide in Russia's presidential poll on Sunday, attention turned to whether the Kremlin could rally a large turnout for the strongman.
For the liberal opposition, the vote was a test of whether celebrity candidate Ksenia Sobchak had enough support to head a new party, while for the Communists, the question was whether a fresh face could revive the party's fortunes.
The suspense-free election campaign largely failed to grab Russians and the authorities pulled out all the stops to convince people to vote, in order to legitimise a Putin victory.
This became particularly important after the main opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged supporters to boycott the polls.
Last year Navalny called tens of thousands of mainly young Russians out onto the street for protests against Putin.
Navalny himself was barred from the presidential race due to a criminal conviction that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.
The authorities pushed hard to bring out voters. Billboards and ads urging people to vote were much more common than those for individual candidates. Public sector workers reported being pressured to vote.
Navalny said after the vote that his boycott was effective because "the level of voting was lower than the last time, despite everyone being coerced."
But the Central Election Commission said turnout was higher than at the previous elections in 2012 as of 6pm Moscow time, two hours before polls closed.
Opposition fragmented as ever
In Navalny's absence, the liberal opposition was represented only by Grigory Yavlinsky, an ageing politician with little appeal for the young people who took to the streets in their thousands last year for anti-Kremlin protests called by Navalny.
But expectations were shaken up by Sobchak, a 36-year-old former reality show host and in recent years a tough-talking journalist, who made a surprise decision to stand.
Her late father Anatoly Sobchak was a liberal politician who served as mayor of the city of Saint Petersburg and was one of Putin's political mentors.
With 50 percent of votes counted, Sobchak received 1.4 percent of the vote, which, though marginal, surpassed that of Yavlinsky with 0.8 percent.
She was widely criticised, including by Navalny, as a "Kremlin project" designed to fragment liberal supporters.
She has announced plans to launch a new "Party of Changes" together with opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov and on Sunday arrived at Navalny's headquarters to invite him to "try to join forces" but was refused.
A heated debate between the two ensued that once again exposed deep rifts in Russia's opposition. "You were part of this machine, part of a lying system," Navalny told Sobchak, calling her a "caricature of a liberal candidate."
"It's a story of two different oppositions," said political analyst Alexander Baunov of Carnegie Moscow centre. "Navalny wants to break the regime while Sobchak wants to change it from within."
The Communist Party -- led by 73-year-old Gennady Zyuganov since the fall of the Soviet Union -- chose to field a younger candidate, Pavel Grudinin, who could appeal to those outside the party's heartland.
The millionaire businessman is not a member of the party but has praised Stalin and runs an agribusiness called the Lenin State Farm just outside Moscow.
His result of 13.6 percent with 50 percent of vote counted was nearly double the vote share projected by state pollsters.
Zyuganov called the result "brilliant" and said Grudinin was a "candidate perfect for the post of prime-minister."
The Communist Party's ideology is a mixture of Soviet nostalgia and conservative values, combining patriotic loyalty to the Kremlin with criticism of Putin's economic policies.
A new face in politics, Grudinin has injected a dose of intrigue into the campaign but has faced a hail of allegations of financial wrongdoing from pro-Kremlin media, though electoral authorities ruled there was no grounds to bar his candidacy.
The authorities "saw that Grudinin is dangerous," Baunov said.
"Maybe he will be incorporated into the system, offered a post outside of the Communist Party," he said.