Russia vote exposes chinks in Putin armour

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The unexpectedly sharp decline in support for Vladimir Putin's party in parliamentary polls has exposed a shift in popular opinion against the dominance of the Russian strongman, analysts said Monday. But despite signs that social changes in Russia are affecting his popularity, the Russian premier still has ratings that would be the envy of any European politician and should still sweep 2012 presidential polls, they added.

United Russia won 238 out of 450 seats in the State Duma, still an absolute majority but down sharply from its 315 seats in the outgoing parliament. It won 49.5 percent of votes, compared with 64.3 in 2007.

The elections were the first after September's announcement that Putin would stand for a new Kremlin term in March 2012 polls after his four-year stint as prime minister and President Dmitry Medvedev would become government chief.

"People simply got terrified that this could all drag on for 12 more years," said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, referring to the two six-year presidential terms that Putin could now serve.

"People felt like fools -- everything was decided for them without even a pretence of them being asked."

The elections marked the first time that either Putin or his party had actually lost votes in an election since the ex-KGB agent claimed the presidency upon Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation on New Year's Eve 1999.

Putin had suffered an unprecedented show of public discontent in the run-up to the polls when he was booed by fight fans when he entered the ring at a martial arts tournament in Moscow.

"Based on these results, we will be able to ensure the stable development of our country," Putin said tersely in a post-election speech at party headquarters that sounded anything but jubilant.

The last years have seen social changes in Russia that could discomfort the elite -- the emergence of a new and potentially critical middle class and explosion in criticism of the authorities on the Internet.

"The fall in popularity was not entirely unexpected. It is caused by popular dissatisfaction with corruption, illegality and abuse of power," said Lipman.

Yelstin Foundation analyst Yevgeny Volk said that while the results showed "disappointment" with United Russia, the authorities' grip on the country was secure so long as the economy remained robust.

"For the moment the economic situation is comfortable and oil prices are high. The strength of the opposition will grow only if the economic conditions worsen."

Analysts said Putin should still easily win his third term as president in March against a weak field, even if his popularity ratings are now lower than the stratospheric 80 percent levels recorded four years ago.

"Putin should win in the first round of the presidential elections," said Konstantin Simonov of the National Energy Security Foundation. "The party's candidate is always more popular that the party itself."

Yet some openly wondered whether Putin may now grow more sensitive to domestic criticism as he seeks to reform in order to survive 12 more years in power.

Under a constitutional change, the Russian presidential mandate will be six years from 2012. Putin can serve two such mandates until 2024.

"This should change the nature of the political debate," said Mikhail Remizov of the National Strategy Institute.

Putin's command of Russia follows in part from the loyalty of a tightly-knit group of former security officers from his native Saint Petersburg who he has installed in key government and state business posts.

The first hints of new softer approach emerged with a report that Boris Gryzlov -- the ruling party chairman who has been parliament speaker since 2003 and another of Putin's Saint Petersburg friends -- could step down.

"It is time to change the format of how (parliament) works -- we have to listen more to our opponents and less to ourselves," an unnamed United Party official told the Echo Moscow radio station.

© 2011 AFP

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