Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will move a step closer Sunday to the presidency he relinquished after two terms in 2008 when he accepts his party’s nomination to challenge a decimated field in March.
The slow-motion return of Russia’s most dominant politician to the Kremlin seat some thought he never truly ceded began in September when the ex-KGB man accepted President Dmitry Medvedev’s well-choreographed proposal to swap jobs.
That event unfolded during a live congress of the ruling United Russia party — a group formed around Putin in 2003 and now desperately hoping to preserve its overwhelming parliamentary presence in December 4 legislative polls.
The second stage on Putin’s comeback will be played out at the same Luzhniki arena and be designed to make sure that as much of his natural charisma wears off on his bureaucrat-heavy party as it tries to shake off its corruption tag.
“With a candidate like Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, we are confident of our victory,” United Russia party secretary Sergei Neverov said on the eve of Sunday’s meeting.
The two-hour event will be broadcast across the nation and attended by some 11,000 delegates who besides Medvedev and the top ministers will include famous sports figures and members of Russia’s cultural elite.
United Russia will hope to get a boost from the festivities after the publication of two pre-election polls showing the party losing Duma seats for the first time since it stormed the lower house of parliament in 2003.
The independent Levada centre showed United Russia’s support slipping from the 64.3 percent it enjoyed in the 2007 elections to just 53 percent today.
This would leave Putin’s party holding 253 of the Duma’s 450 seats — well down on the current 315 figure and below the two-thirds constitutional majority needed for the Kremlin to change Russia’s basic law without outside support.
A poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency showed United Russia doing only marginally better with 262 seats.
Both studies showed the Communist Part coming in second with about a fifth of the legislature and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultra-nationalist LDPR party placing third with almost 60 seats.
A populist group called A Just Russia that has a pro-Kremlin voting record despite its official status as a member of the opposition would be the last to sneak past the seven-percent barrier permitting parties to get Duma seats.
This breakdown has stirred deep resentment from opposition forces that have either been denied registration or had become too enfeebled since Putin’s rise to power to pose a serious election threat.
Hundreds of disgruntled voters from both the nationalist and democratic blocs rallied on the main squares of Moscow and Putin’s native Saint Petersburg to mark what some said would be the start of United Russia’s decline.
“There are full preparations under way for election fraud,” senior A Just Russia lawmaker Gennady Gudkov told about 500 supporters at one such Moscow event. “If this fraud takes place, we will go to the streets.”
“I hope this day will be remembered as the one on which Putin’s party began its decline,” added 48-year-old Marat Gelman while attending a simultaneous event in Saint Petersburg.
Russian news reports said that a similar small action was also held in the Ural Mountains city of Ufa but that other major cities avoided a day of protests despite opposition attempts to organise a national event.