MOSCOW -- In a broadside that typifies the tone of the campaign before Russia's parliamentary elections next month, a billboard advertisement appeared in central Moscow in the middle of the night recently congratulating Yevgeny M. Primakov, the former prime minister, on his 70th birthday: it showed a wheelchair.
Since Primakov is allied with Moscow's powerful mayor, the jab was the political equivalent of a guerrilla strike into the enemy camp.
But more than that, it demonstrated the low road traveled in a campaign characterized so far by personal attacks and raw politics rather than by any ideological debate among candidates ranging from ousted prime ministers and tycoons to movie stars and former gangsters.
The prize is a seat in the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, and all the privileges it carries, including free apartments and immunity from criminal prosecution. The race is so bitter, however, because its real significance is as a trial run for next year's presidential elections.
If Primakov and Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov of Moscow emerge on top in the Dec. 19 elections, as polls now predict, they will have gained a big leg-up in the presidential contest.
A lackluster showing would help their rival, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who proclaimed his intention to run for president on Friday and who is riding a wave of popular resentment against Chechnya, the breakaway region where Moscow has been carrying out air raids almost daily.
"Everyone understands that the Duma election is a dress rehearsal before the presidential election," said Aleksandr A. Oslon, the head of Public Opinion, a polling organization. "Ideology itself does not have any special significance now."
The election will have significance in its own right, helping to determine the relations of the Kremlin with a Parliament, dominated right now by Communists, that has resisted efforts to reform Russia's economy.
Many commentators believe that despite fierce attacks by its opponents, the Primakov-Luzhkov team will come in first, picking up supporters at the expense of the Communists by presenting itself as a centrist party that tilts toward the left.
That could mean a Parliament with fewer Communists, Oslon said, but a confrontational chamber nonetheless, because the Primakov-Luzhkov coalition would try to use Parliament to discredit Putin. Other analysts say the wave of attacks and counterattacks in the campaign will weaken both factions. That could help the Communists maintain their dominance in Parliament, said Otto Latsis, an analyst with the newspaper Noviye Izvestiya.
"Strange as it may seem, the Communists may get more votes than they got four years ago, not less," Latsis said.
In sharp contrast to the legislative election four years ago, that outcome would have surprisingly little to do with ideology. Back then, the Communists appeared to be on the rise and the question was whether President Boris N. Yeltsin and his allies could turn them back. But these days the issue is not whether Russia may revert to Communism. Rather, it is what kind of capitalist state Russia plans to build: one of rampant cronyism or the rule of law?
Many Russians are deeply skeptical about the willingness of their politicians to rid the nation of corruption. Still, they seem determined to have a voice. If past patterns hold -- and Russian's pollsters project they will -- some 65 percent of the electorate will vote, a much better turnout than in the United States.
"The public sees all of the factions as more or less corrupted," said Yuri Levada of V.T.S.I.O.M., a leading polling agency. "The election is a very acute and not very principled struggle, which involves a lot of intrigue. Still, the voters want to have a say in the political game."
Certainly, the field is a crowded one. All told, 28 parties are running, including everyone from neofascists to Russia's tiny corps of environmentalists and feminists.
The election process, in fact, is less open than it appears. Despite eight years of democracy, Russia lacks broad-based political parties in the Western sense. Instead, hierarchical movements organized around a single politician often dominate.
And despite an electorate of more than 100 million, relatively few Russians belong to a political party. That is a legacy from Soviet days when the only sanctioned party was the stultifying Communist Party.
The Communists, who inherited the structure of the old Soviet Communist Party, insist they have the most members: more than 500,000. But that is a fraction of the 11 million Communist Party members in Soviet times and their faithful are aging.
The Primakov-Luzhkov coalition, which unites the Fatherland and All Russia parties, contends it has 380,000 members, but there is no way of knowing for sure.
The Yabloko party of Grigory Yavlinsky, whose platform resembles that of a western European Social Democratic party, is perhaps more candid about its membership than others are. It claims to have only 5,000 members.
Despite the plethora of parties, only a relative handful are expected to obtain a place in the Parliament. Under Russia's election laws, half of the 450 seats are set aside for candidates who run on a national party slate. The rest are allocated to candidates who run on their own from individual regions.
To qualify for a place in the Parliament, a political party must get at least 5 percent of the overall vote. Only four parties managed to cross that threshold in the last parliamentary election, in 1995.
The favored Primakov-Luzhkov coalition attracts about 20 percent of the electorate, according to many polls.
Anointed as prime minister after the economic crash in August 1998 -- and fired by President Yeltsin seven months later -- Primakov is seen by many Russians as a symbol of stability. Luzhkov has sought to capitalize on the relative prosperity Moscow has enjoyed compared with the rest of the nation, although this is a liability with Russian voters in the provinces, who resent the capital.
Running under the uninspired leadership of Gennadi A. Zyuganov, the Communists seem to be giving the Primakov-Luzhkov team a run for its money.
Yavlinsky's Yabloko party is running a distant, but respectable, third, with about 11 percent.
Another party uniting market reformers, which failed to overcome the 5 percent threshold last time, is hoping to win a toehold in the Parliament in this election, though that is far from assured. Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the nationalist extremist who has so alarmed the West, may also fail to win a place in the legislature.
Putin has not endorsed any party. But his supporters inside and outside the Kremlin are doing their best to weaken the coalition of his rivals, Primakov and Luzhkov, and slow its momentum.
[On Sunday, President Yeltsin publicly anointed Putin as his candidate in the presidential race, appearing with the prime minister on television, taking his arm and proclaiming Putin, who he said was daily increasing in stature at home and abroad, as "the only solution for Russia."]
The main weapon in this tussle so far has been relentless attacks on the Moscow mayor and the former prime minister on ORT, the state-owned television channel, which is controlled by the tycoon Boris A. Berezovsky, a prominent supporter of Yeltsin who is himself a candidate for the Parliament.
The network has portrayed Primakov as too old and Luzhkov as too corrupt to run Russia. The barrage of allegations appears to have hampered the team's effort to portray itself as a corruption fighter, and its rating in the polls has begun to slide.
The coalition's main goal, observed Anatoly B. Chubais, the former Kremlin aide and a sharp critic of the coalition, is not to increase its popularity "but to stop the decline."
The billboard mocking Primakov remains something of a mystery. The company that owns it contended the advertisement -- which disappeared almost as swiftly as it went up -- was the work of political vandals.
By all accounts, however, it was just a small taste of the negative campaigning and mudslinging that Russia seems likely to witness over the next five weeks.