Date: March 4, 2012

Process: If no candidate receives 50 per cent plus one of the votes, the two candidates with the most votes face off in a second round.

The incumbent: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is not running again after serving one term. In September, Medvedev announced he would back Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the job and if Putin won, would himself take over Putin's post. The two men also switched jobs in 2008 after Putin's second term as president expired and term limits prevented him from staying in office.

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Demonstrators rally to protest against election fraud in Moscow, Dec. 24. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press )

The context: After parliamentary elections in November that many Russians consider fraudulent, a massive protest movement began. The official winner of the election was United Russia, the party of Putin and Medvedev, which many protesters view as "the party of crooks and thieves," a phrase coined by leading opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Since that vote, there have been mass protests around the slogan, "For honest elections."  On Feb. 26 anti-Putin protesters in Moscow formed a human chain around the city centre. Some leading figures in the opposition movement, including Navalny, said they wouldn't run in the March 4 election because they expect that vote will be rigged.

That opposition is not represented by any of the candidates in the race.

Nominations: Independent candidates had until Jan. 18 to submit two million signatures backing their nominations. Mikhail Prokhorov, Grigory Yavlinsky and Dmitry Mezentsev did so but the pro-Putin Central Election Commission rejected the signatures for Yavlinsky and Mezentsev.

Candidates from the four officially recognized parties were not required to submit signatures.

Approved candidates:

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gestures during a meeting with media editors at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow Jan. 18. He is widely exprected to win the presidential vote on March 4. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Pool/Reuters)

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin was Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor and became president after Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999. Putin brought stability following the chaos of the Yeltsin years.

Putin, 59, moved from the president's office to that of the prime minister in 2008 after he had served the constitutional maximum two terms. Now, he plans to switch offices again with current President Dmitry Medvedev.

The Russian constitution doesn't prevent former presidents from running again and thanks to amendments passed by Medvedev extending presidential terms by two years, if Putin does win, he could potentially serve two six-year terms.

Putin will not take part in any candidate debates during the campaign, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Jan. 12.

At a campaign rally on Feb. 23, Putin blamed foreign interference for the growing opposition to him. "We won't allow anyone to meddle in our affairs or impose their will upon us because we have a will of our own," Putin told the crowd, many of them state workers who were pressured to take part as a show of support for Putin.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky

Vladimir Zhirinovsky is running for president for the fifth time. In 2008, he had the support of 10 per cent of the electorate.

Zhirinovsky, 65, is also vice-chairman of the Duma.

He has led the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia since 1990. At the time it was the only official party besides the Communists. The Kremlin and the KGB supported (and apparently initiated) its creation.

Zhirinovsky is known for both his comical and his racist remarks, for physically fighting his political opponents and for spitting at and threatening them. He's often viewed as something of a clown.

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Presidential candidates Vladimir Zhirinovsky, left, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Russian Communist Party, listen as President Dmitry Medvedev delivers the annual state of the nation address at the Kremlin in Moscow Dec. 22, 2011. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters)

His campaign slogan for 2012 is "Surrender."

Past campaign promises have included free vodka and free underwear. German magazine Der Spiegel called his 2008 platform "ludicrous." Spiegel described his efforts as "entirely to the Kremlin's liking because it helps to neutralize the potential of right-wing voters."

Gennady Zyuganov

The 2012 election will be Gennady Zyuganov's fourth time as the Communist Party's presidential candidate. In 2008, he received 18 per cent of the vote.

Zyuganov, 67, has been active in the Communist Party since 1966 and its leader since 1993.

A year ago, to mark the anniversary of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's death, Zyuganov called for the "re-Stalinization" of Russia.

On the important votes in the Duma, the Russian parliament, Communist Party deputies usually vote for Putin's programs, observers have noted.

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Presidential candidate Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia party, addresses deputies during the first session of the lower house of the parliament in Moscow Dec. 21, 2011. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Sergei Mironov

In December, on the front-page of Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov's English-language website, under publications, the headline "Pro-Kremlin Mironov ‘ready to run’ for president" appears.

It links to a story from state-owned news agency Ria-Novosti, which concludes, "Some analysts see the Mironov case as a move by the Kremlin to cast him as an opposition figure who might subsequently head a "controlled opposition" to lend greater legitimacy to next year's presidential elections."

Mironov, 58, was chairman of the upper house of the Russian Parliament from 2001 to 2011. Although a Putin supporter, he ran in the 2004 presidential election, getting less than one per cent of the vote. In 2006 he became the leader of Just Russia.

During the 2011 parliamentary vote in December, Just Russia adopted Alexei Navalny's line, calling Putin's United Russia "the party of crooks and thieves." That's part of the reason Just Russia went from 38 to 64 seats.

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Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov delivers a speech during an event to collect signatures for his presidential bid in Moscow January 13. Candidates must collect two million signatures to take part in the forthcoming presidential election, scheduled for March 4, 2012. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Mikhail Prokhorov

A week before the billionaire owner of the NBA New Jersey Nets basketball team, Mikhail Prokhorov, announced in December that he would be entering the presidential race, he declared his support for Putin on his blog: "Like it or not, Putin is still the only person capable of running this ineffective state machine, at least to some degree."

Earlier this year, Prokhorov, 46, made his first foray into politics, as leader of a Kremlin-created party, Right Cause. He was forced out in September, for which he blamed Kremlin power brokers.

On Jan. 17, Prokhorov labelled Zhirinovsky, Zyuganov and Mironov as "well-concealed Kremlin projects" who only pretend to oppose Putin.

But Prokhorov has been saying he would serve as Putin's prime minister if Putin wins the March 4 vote. "If our programs coincide by 80 per cent, then I'll think about it," Prokhorov stated Jan. 18.

Forbes magazine ranks Prokhorov at #32 on its list of the world's richest, and #3 in Russia. It estimates the 46-year-old's net worth at $18 billion US. (For more on Prokorov's wealth, see the sidebar story here.)

Prokhorov is the only independent candidate to win the approval of the Central Election Commission, which he received Jan. 25.

Rejected candidates:

Grigory Yavlinsky

The commission rejected the signatures for would-be presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky of the Yabloko party.

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Yabloko party founder Grigory Yavlinsky walks past boxes containing over two million signatures to support his presidential candidacy at the Central Election Commission in Moscow January 18. Yabloko is the Russian word for apple. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Yavlinsky, 59, whose time in government goes back to the Gorbachev era, ran for president in 1996 and 2000 and received about seven per cent of the vote each time. He sat out the next two campaigns, claiming the elections were rigged.

Yabloko ran in the parliamentary elections but according to the official count, received just three per cent of the vote. According to Natalia Bubnova of the Carnegie Moscow Center, "there might have been more manipulation with regard to Yabloko" in the vote count. She argues that, "the authorities did not want Yabloko to get even five per cent because that would have allowed the party's leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, to run for the presidency without collecting the two million signatures that he will now need to appear on the ballot."

Yavlinsky has been polling in the low single digits so his exclusion seems to have more to do with keeping the party's observers out of the polling booths than preventing an effective challenge to Putin. Yabloko planned to have up to 90,000 observers on March 4, according to Russian news website, Kommersant.

"The main reason for upcoming removal of Yavlinsky is our monitors," tweeted Yabloko's chair, Sergei Mitrokhin. Those monitors "were instrumental in documenting the alleged widespread election fraud after December's parliamentary elections," according to Russia Profile, a news website.

In a video released Jan. 10, Yavlinsky directly confronts the question of why he had wanted to participate this time, saying, "I'm going to sit down with the cheats and beat them."

Dmitry Mezentsev

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Irkutsk Governor Dmitry Mezentsev, left, is running for Dmitry Medvedev's job as Russia's president. They inspect post boxes in a residential apartment block in the Siberian city of Irkutsk April 18, 2011. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters)

When the plan for Putin and Medvedev to switch jobs again was made public in September, Irkutsk governor Dmitry Mezentsev, a Medvedev appointee, called it "a decision for the benefit of Russia."

On Dec. 14, Mezentsev joined the presidential race.

He is what in Russia is called a "safety candidate," there to make the race legally valid if all the candidates except Putin drop out, a scenario that, by January, looked unlikely.

When the election commission announced it would likely be excluding him from the race, Mezentsev raised no objections and said: "The Central Electoral Commission is doing its job."

Mezentsev, 52, and Putin both worked at St. Petersburg City Hall in the nineties. Mezentsev was a Federation Council senator until appointed governor in 2009.

In January, a video that democracy activists claim shows students at a Moscow university preparing fake lists of supporters to get Mezentsev on the ballot went viral in Russia. Mezentsev denied the accusations.