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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Putin, Now and Forever

The New York Times reports:

President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that a convincing victory for the party he is leading in Dec. 2 parliamentary elections would give him the ''moral right'' to maintain strong influence in Russia after he steps down next year. Putin's remarks were the clearest affirmation yet that he plans to keep a powerful hold on Russia's reins when his eight years as president are over, but he stopped short of saying whether he would seek a formal role. Putin said last month that he would lead the dominant United Russia party's ticket in the elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. The decision appeared aimed at boosting the party's chances and ensuring himself a power base when term limits force him from office in May.

''If the people vote for United Russia, it means that a clear majority of the people put their trust in me, and in turn that means I will have the moral right to hold those in the Duma and the Cabinet responsible for the implementation of the tasks that have been set as of today,'' Putin said, while visiting a road construction site in Krasnoyarsk, a sprawling Siberian region that reaches beyond the Arctic Circle. ''In what form I will do this, I cannot yet give a direct answer. But various possibilities exist,'' he said, in response to a question from a construction worker who asked what he would do after he leaves office.

In parliamentary elections, voters choose only among parties, not individuals. Seats are allocated proportionally to those parties that receive at least 7 percent of the vote. The people who lead party tickets do not always take seats in parliament, and the Kremlin has said Putin has no intention of doing so. After Putin agreed to head the United Russia ticket, the party has cast the election as a referendum on the president and the course he has set for the country. Putin, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third straight term in March presidential elections, has long indicated that he hopes to remain influential after stepping down. He said last month that he might become prime minister, but there have been indications that he would instead choose an informal path. Putin's remarks Tuesday seemed to seek to reinforce that idea -- and send a message to those who have expressed doubt that he can manage to keep his grip on the country after leaving office.

The trip, Putin's first major one inside Russia since the campaign began, targeted a region where he won only 60 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election, compared with his more than 71 percent nationwide. But across the city, United Russia billboards -- reading ''Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory'' -- far outnumber other parties' ads, and smaller United Russia signs are affixed to lamppost after lamppost along the main avenue downtown. A local state-run television network late Monday showed Soviet-style preparations for Putin's visit, with a plow driver saying, ''We're working for Putin,'' as he pushed snow off the long road in from the airport. Opposition parties say the authorities use their power to unfairly benefit United Russia, echoing foreign observers' statements after the 2003 parliamentary elections that state control over levers of influence gave the ruling party an advantage, undermining democracy. The regional head of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, Vladislav Korolyov, said that illegal pressure from the authorities is preventing his party from getting its message to voters.

Opinion polls indicate United Russia will win a majority of votes in the upcoming elections and that only one other party, the Communists, is certain to clear the 7 percent barrier needed to win seats in the Duma.

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