While Russia's parliamentary elections monopolize the headlines, the Moscow region governor's race - to be settled on the same Dec. 19 date - is being fought in virtual obscurity to the public.
Outsiders may not be taking much notice, but the candidates themselves are involved in a tight, hard-fought contest. A dozen contenders have already registered for the race, one of nine governorships to be decided on that date.
Candidates have until Nov. 18 to register to challenge the incumbent governor, Anatoly Tyazhlov, who is seeking his third four-year term as the top executive in one of Russia's biggest and richest regions. The region consists of 39 districts and has a population of 7 million. The city of Moscow is not included in the regional administration.
Despite the high number of hopefuls competing, most observers and the candidates themselves say that only a handful have a real chance of winning.
Leading challengers, according to experts, are Boris Gromov, the popular general from the Afghanistan war; Gennady Seleznyev, the State Duma (lower house of parliament) speaker; and liberal Boris Fyodorov, the Forward, Russia! political party leader.
Despite allegations of alcoholism and political inertia in the regional press, Tyazhlov remains the frontrunner. Nonetheless, analysts agree that Tyazhlov is unlikely to win an outright majority and will be forced into a second-round runoff. The only question remaining, experts say, is who will be his opponent in the second round.
"The die is cast. None of the candidates is up to challenge the Moscow governor,'' said Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama political research group. "Although he is not popular, he can mobilize all the resources of his position as head of the regional administrative apparatus. He controls the local elite and will use it to his own electoral ends. And the local elite will readily give its support in order to retain its own position."
Yet, in contrast to his 1995 routine re-election victory - when he was accused of orchestrating falsified results - Tyazhlov will have more serious contenders this time around, experts say.
"Dangerous contenders were barred from taking part in the vote on some spurious grounds put forward by a docile electoral commission," said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. But Petrov thinks this time, things might be different. "Tyazhlov has lost some of his charisma and authority. More important, he has lost his grasp over the local elite, and it won't be as easy for him to retain is seat."
Candidates will run as two-member teams, with one running for the top spot and the other for the vice governor post. Gromov, a member of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's Fatherland-All-Russia political bloc (OVR), remains a popular figure, and his teaming with Yabloko's Mikhail Men could give him an added boost, Pribylovsky says.
Tyazhlov himself sees Seleznyev as his main contender, according to press reports and other candidates.
Seleznyev can exploit the political capital he has built up as Duma speaker and Communist Party member. Fyodorov, however, doubts Seleznyev will have an easy time making the second round.
Seleznyev originally said he would run for the St. Petersburg governorship but pulled out after former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin entered the race.
"He [Seleznyev] is an outsider, and everybody knows that he chose to try his luck in the Moscow region to avoid a humiliating defeat in Petersburg," Fyodorov said. "But that's a mistake."
Seleznyev's main electoral asset remains the backing of the Communist Party. But in a region traditionally to the center of the political landscape, that might be insufficient, experts say.
Fyodorov gives himself a "good chance" to enter the second round but added that the race would likely be close among the four leaders.
"Frankly, I think that in the first round, we will play equal partners. The four of us have a potential for up to 20 percent of the vote," Fyodorov said.
In a race that opposes two members of Luzhkov's bloc - Tyazhlov and Gromov are both affiliated with OVR - the outcome might well depend on the mayor's attitude. His decision to give his official backing to one of the candidates could be fatal to the other. So far, Luzhkov has refrained from making any public statements on his preference.
But his silence might play into the Moscow governor's hand, Petrov said. "Many voters in the Moscow region work in the capital, and for them, being on good terms with the Moscow mayor is as important as it is for the region to have good relations with the center. Tyazhlov has good relations with Luzhkov, and everybody knows it."