Heading into the final days before elections, all bets are off in the race to win control of Russia's third democratically elected State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
The latest predictions - the last numbers likely to be available before a government-imposed rating blackout - show a variety of scenarios, in which any of three major parties could come out on top.
"In this case, few if any analysts will manage to predict the results," said Dmitry Shmerling, a political analyst at the Indem Foundation. "It's not because of their unprofessionalism or because they are bad analysts, but public opinion now is very unstable. There is a lot of vacillation and the people are completely lost."
Into early December, public opinion polls showed the Communists (KPRF) with a firm lead, followed by the Kremlin-backed Unity party and Fatherland-All Russia (OVR). But in a flurry of last-minute number crunching, several political experts have overturned the conventional wisdom, relegating KPRF to as low as third place.
Nonetheless, the Communists are the obvious favorite, garnering no less than 15 percent of the vote in any of the predictions, and in some cases nearly 30 percent.
"First place will obviously be taken by the Communists," said Vladimir Zharikhin, head of electoral technologies at the Moscow `
Foundation of Electoral Technologies. "The interesting thing is that, although they will gather fewer voters than in the last elections, it will be more than their current ratings."
The trick in guessing the outcome, experts said, is figuring out who is going to vote and who isn't. Most predict that 60 percent to 65 percent of the more than 107 million eligible voters in Russia will turn out to vote. Some analysts argue that the prevalence of negative campaigning has turned many voters off politics and will drive turnout down. Sociologists, however, dispute that.
"I haven't seen such an extremely negative influence from this campaign," said Yelena Bashkirova, director of ROMIR Sociological Agency. "Maybe some people were turned off by it, but some people's interest has been piqued by these loud scandals."
Others, meanwhile, believe that many voters simply don't feel that the Duma has any relevance to their lives.
"In my opinion, not more than 60 percent of voters will participate," said Boris Stelmakov, president of the Center for Strategic Planning. "I base that on the results of regional elections. Turnout there was 70 percent, and federal power is in fact much less significant to people than regional power."
What's more, Bashkirova said, turnout will depend on fleeting and unpredictable factors like weather and perceptions of corruption. It is exactly that uncertainty over turnout that has led some to predict that the Communists may not do as well as their ratings might suggest.
"It is a mistake that the Communists will come in first based on their ratings," Stelmakov said. "There is a vast group of people who refuse to be polled, about 15 percent to 20 percent, and they are very intelligent and clever people, so their votes will change the whole situation."
The Communists, who made a strong showing in the 1994 presidential elections, led by Gennady Zyuganov, captured the majority of the Duma in 1996 and have led a vociferous opposition to President Boris Yeltsin's administration.
But in recent months, KPRF has lost popularity, while the Kremlin's most serious opposition seemed to come from OVR, the union of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Most experts expect OVR to win second place, garnering between 10 percent and 18 percent of the popular vote.
But OVR's ratings have slipped dramatically in the last few weeks, as the Kremlin-backed Unity party gained ground, led by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu and Olympic wrestler Alexander Karelin. That party's popularity - helped by the backing of popular Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - has skyrocketed in recent polls, and at least one expert predicts it will win the largest block in the Duma, garnering between 10 percent and 20 percent of the vote. Still, some are skeptical.
"All forecasts that [Unity] can attract more supporters through, for example, an assault on Grozny, are far-fetched," Zharikhin said. "Public conscience is an inertial system. The associations from military success to Putin and then from Putin to Unity is not a two or three day deal. To become an electoral motive, they need not less than a week."
Only a handful of other parties are expected to make it to the Duma, which requires winning at least 5 percent of the vote nationwide. Among them are Grigory Yavlinsky's reformist Yabloko Party, the Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS) led by reformers Sergei Kiriyenko, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada, and the two blocs led by ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Half of the Duma's 450 seats are assigned by proportional representation according to the candidate lists of the parties that clear the 5 percent hurdle. The other half are awarded to candidates who win outright majorities to represent specific districts, either aligned with a party or as independent candidates.