Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may dissolve his ruling party and create a new power base after next month’s presidential vote, according to two people familiar with the plans.
United Russia, which Putin set up in 2001, lost its two- thirds parliamentary majority in December. The party would probably have a different name, new logo and new leadership, said the people, who are involved in government discussions about the plan and asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. United Russia spokeswoman Natalia Virtuozova said she was unaware of plans to rebrand the party.
The party’s failure in December parliamentary elections, in which it lost 77 seats, leaving it with 238 seats in the 450- member legislature, was a result of “deep-rooted problems,” Putin said at a meeting with supporters Feb. 7. That was the first time the party’s support declined from one nationwide vote to the next.
“It represented people’s reaction to the party’s inability to respond to injustice at a grassroots level,” Putin said.
The plans show maneuvering by Putin after tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protests against alleged fraud in the December legislative polls. The government has since pledged to allow more political parties to register, reserve half of the seats in parliament for independent lawmakers and restore direct elections for regional governors.
A senior United Russia official, Yury Shuvalov, said the party must respond to the social mood in the country and become more competitive.
“I wouldn’t predict what changes exactly will happen,” Shuvalov said by phone today. “There are various options that we are discussing.”
Putin, 59, who refused opposition demands to hold a repeat parliamentary poll, may agree to early elections by 2014 to defuse criticism, Mikhail Dmitriev, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Research, which advises the government, said after he met with the prime minister on Feb. 6. The next election is scheduled for 2016.
Early elections are not something Putin wants but he is ready for it if the situation demands, Dmitriev said, adding that he sees early elections as very likely. Putin may also replace his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, as prime minister after a year, he said.
Boris Titov, chairman of the business lobby group and a member of Putin’s People’s front, called for early parliamentary elections in 2013. In a document called Entrepreneurs’ Charter published in Kommersant newspaper today, Titov and other businessmen from his group said that these early elections should be held together with governors elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg, two cities which have largely middle class population and where the largest protests took place.
“Medvedev has his own political program, and if he becomes premier, there is a chance that again one part of the elite will have one center and the other part will have another center,” said Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists, a lobby group for big business, and a senior member of Putin’s popular front coalition.
The outgoing president can focus on continuing political overhaul in a different role, Shokhin said. “The age of reshuffles and tandems is over,” he said.
The premier last year created a coalition of supporters under his personal leadership as backing for the ruling party waned. Putin opened United Russia’s Duma faction to members of his All-Russia People’s Front and promised this week that the country’s next government will be “substantially renewed.”
Putin, who was president between 2000 and 2008, announced in September that he would seek to return to the Kremlin, swapping jobs with Medvedev after four years as prime minister.
Medvedev, 46, a former lawyer from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg who had pledged to fight corruption and improve the rule of law, took over in 2008 after Putin served the maximum two consecutive terms allowed by the constitution.
Opposition parties say that United Russia inflated its share of the vote from 30 percent to just under 50 percent in the Dec. 4 election. The government says the election was fair.
In 2007, United Russia won more than 64 percent of the vote, giving it a two-thirds majority in the Duma that allowed it to change the constitution. Putin leads United Russia, without being a member of the party.
Putin’s challengers in the March 4 presidential election have pledged to hold a new parliamentary vote in December.
“If it turns out that the popularity of parties outside Parliament is quite high, making the legislature unrepresentative, then it makes sense to think of early parliamentary polls,” said Sergei Markov, a senior member of United Russia.
The premier will win an outright presidential victory in the first round, according to an opinion poll released today by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion. He polled at 53 percent, up from 52 percent in a survey last week, according to the state-run organization, known as VTsIOM.
Another report by the Public Opinion Foundation showed Putin’s voter backing at 47 percent, up from 46 percent a week earlier. Putin’s opponents say he can only achieve a first-round win through fraud, which will provoke a greater wave of protests, depriving him of legitimacy.
The Russian leader is weaker than ever before and may have to plan an “exit strategy” because he may not last the whole six-year presidential term, Dmitriev said.
“Under certain circumstances Putin is psychologically inclined not to block the necessary reforms,” Dmitriev said. “Although he feels uncomfortable about it, he has a personality split. On the one hand he is afraid of the new environment, on other hand he feels that the future depends on these people,” he said, referring to the protesters.
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