Putin's popularity takes a hit ahead of vote

16th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Vladimir Putin's approval ratings have declined to historic lows, polls showed Friday, as liberal media suggested the powerful prime minister was growing out of touch after Russia was swept by protests.

The day earlier Putin gave one of his trademark strongman performances at his annual phone-in with Russians, joking that he mistook the white ribbons on protesters' lapels for condoms and saying he was learning to play ice hockey during the largest rallies of his 12-year rule.

Russian media said that despite efforts to present to the Russians a newer, more democratic version of himself, the 4 1/2-hour phone-in only exposed a gap between society's expectations and Putin's inability to change tack.

"His style looked outdated and jokes not funny," Vedomosti business daily said in an editorial. "Comparisons of the white ribbons to condoms and accusations of being paid to demonstrate were not pretty or smart."

Prominent commentator Mikhail Fishman added in the same newspaper: "Putin does not realise that the rising tide is largely directed against him personally."

The opposition and observers say Putin's ruling United Russia party cheated its way to a slim majority in parliamentary polls this month, with public anger culminating in a series of mass protests across the country last weekend.

Over 24,000 people have already said on Facebook they would attend a new protest on December 24, an uncomfortable prospect for Putin as he heads into his campaign to return to the Kremlin in March presidential elections.

The most recent polls showed Putin's popularity has taken such a dive he will not be able to secure victory in the first round.

Putin will win only 42 percent in the first round, for the first time needing a second round against his Communist challenger, said a poll by the state-controlled All Russian Public Opinion Centre (VTsIOM).

Such a rating would mark a serious erosion in his once invincible support which in his last presidential election victory in 2004 saw him win over 70 percent of the vote.

However his nearest rival Gennady Zyuganov is still lagging far behind on 11 percent, leaving Putin almost certain of victory in the second round.

In another poll quoted in Russian media by the Fund of Public Opionion (FOM), 44 percent of people said they had complete trust in Putin, compared to 46 percent in the previous month.

The Russian blogosphere, which has been the centre of the protest movement, reacted with indignation to Putin's phone-in, with one blogger saying every new interview of Russia's leaders was being met with an increasing "feeling of disgust."

"How long will this circus last?" said the person on LiveJournal, one of Russia's most popular blogging sites, identifying himself as vital_g.

Bloggers also immediately derided Putin's eyebrow-raising comparisons of the recent opposition demonstrations to an anti-AIDS campaign.

One new slogan posted on LiveJournal features Putin next to a symbol of anti-government demonstrations -- the white ribbon which he compared to "contraceptives" and reads:

"Citizens of Russia, use white ribbons, protect yourself from Putin and vote falsification."

Mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets said Putin's hints in his phone-in that he could liberalise his tightly controlled political system were merely a ploy.

"Having failed to win over his domestic political opponents with the help of head-on pressure, our national leader is hoping to outsmart them and smother them in his embrace," it said.

The website of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine said Putin's promises amounted to nothing more than haphazard attempts to react to the protests.

"And he still does not know whether he will have to tighten the screws, or, on the contrary, pretend to loosen up."

© 2011 AFP

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