Putin's party tightens grip ahead of election -poll

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MOSCOW, Oct 24 (Reuters) Support for Russia's main pro-Kremlin political party has increased sharply ahead of a parliamentary election in December after President Vladimir Putin decided to head its list of candidates.

The United Russia party is now backed by 68 percent of voters, up from 55 percent in September, according to the latest monthly opinion survey from independent pollster Levada Centre sent to Reuters today.

Levada conducted the survey after Putin made the surprise announcement on October 1 he would head United Russia's national list of candidates, in a move to maintain his influence after he leaves office next year.

Although United Russia has always backed Kremlin initiatives, Putin is not a member and had kept a distance. He said he was above party politics as a national leader.

Levada's poll suggested two of the four largest parties in the Duma (lower house of parliament) could fail to clear a 7 per cent hurdle established for the December vote.

Support for the nationalist LDPR party slumped to 6 percent in October from 11 percent in September. Fair Russia, the second pro-Kremlin party, suffered a fall in popularity from 7 per cent to 4.

Only the Communists, whose support was down one percentage point at 17 percent, would be certain to be represented in the new Duma along with United Russia, if Levada's results were repeated at the election.

Among the possible candidates for next March's presidential election, Levada found in a separate poll that support for First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov had fallen for a second successive month.

Rarlier this year, one of the two men, close allies of the president, was expected to win Putin's endorsement as his preferred presidential candidate.

But when Putin picked little-known bureaucrat Viktor Zubkov to become prime minister in September, political analysts concluded the president had not yet made up his mind and that Zubkov was a possible third option.

Thirteen percent of voters were prepared to back Zubkov for president, Levada said, even though few had heard of him when appointed and he had been in the job only a month when the survey was conducted.

Support for Ivanov fell to 25 per cent from 34 per cent the previous month while backing for Medvedev slid from 30 per cent to 26 per cent.

Nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky won his highest level of support this year, 19 per cent, up from 11 per cent the previous month. Veteran Communist Gennady Zyuganov scored 12 per cent, down three percentage points on the month.

Levada interviewed a sample of 1,600 Russians between October 12-16 for both polls, which had a margin of error of 3 percent.

REUTERS AE KN2335

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