Putin seeks to map Russia's future with election

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MOSCOW, Nov 19 (Reuters) The party set to win a big majority in Russia's parliamentary election next month has boiled down its central idea to two words: Vladimir Putin.

United Russia's programme is called ''The Putin plan'', the popular Russian president is running as No 1 on the party's election slate, and his name and photographs are plastered over its campaign literature.

But the Putin card is more than just a vote-grabbing ploy.

United Russia has been handed the task at the December 2 election of ensuring the 55-year-old leader retains some kind of power or influence after he steps down next year.

The party's leaders do not disguise this. ''We must preserve Vladimir Putin's status as the national leader via the elections -- this is a nationwide referendum in support of Putin,'' party leader Boris Gryzlov said this month.

''The role of Vladimir Putin as leader will be fully guaranteed by the party and its parliamentary majority.'' Putin has to step down because he is nearing the end of his second consecutive term, the maximum allowed under the constitution. He has made clear he intends to still be a player.

It is not clear how he will do that, but a big victory for United Russia in the parliamentary election is a core part of the strategy to achieve it, analysts say.

Here are the options: * A big victory for United Russia will bind Putin's successor to his programme. He has said such a win would give him a ''moral right'' to hold the next government to account.

* Putin could become head of the party, or prime minister under the next president. Lawmakers confirm prime ministers, so a strong base in parliament would be essential.

* Some analysts say United Russia could push through constitutional changes with enough seats. Those could include measures to weaken the next president's power, and strengthen Putin's role.

THE PUTIN PLAN United Russia's 2,705 word manifesto, ''The Putin Plan -- a worthy future for a great country'', is a collection of Putin's speeches and the party says it seeks to continue his policies.

''The Putin Plan has defined the direction of Russia's future development,'' the manifesto says. ''The country has a national leader - President Vladimir Putin ... Our strategic aim is to build Russia into a great power.'' United Russia says it plans to use Russia's swift economic growth to raise living standards and pensions while boosting birth rates and strengthening the army -- all Putin's policies.

It seems to strike a chord with voters. Polls suggest United Russia will win over 60 per cent of the vote on December 2 while nearest rivals, the communists, are on single figures.

But opponents say the party and its plan are hollow.

''United Russia has no ideology -- there is no Putin Plan, it is just a myth, a cliche and clear propaganda,'' Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov told Reuters. ''United Russia cannot exist without Putin.'' ''They are trying to create a new version of the Soviet Communist Party and if they get a majority they will try to form the government and name presidential candidates,'' he said.

Opposition leaders also say the party is under pressure from the Kremlin to match Putin's 2004 presidential election tally of 71.3 per cent, because anything less would look as though his support was weakening.

That may be difficult. Analysts say many supporters may stay at home because victory is assured.

Putin himself appears uncomfortable linking himself with the party. This month he said some members were ''rascals''.

Analysts say Putin could still pursue a strategy for preserving his influence that did not involve United Russia.

''Putin is the national leader and will be the national leader after the elections -- what I don't understand is how,'' said Vladimir Semago, who announced he would leave parliament after the election and move abroad. ''Putin can exist without United Russia -- I am not sure it is the other way around.'' REUTERS DKS BST0708

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