Putin expects tight presidential race

Vladimir Putin has conceded that he may not be able to win next month's presidential election in the first round of voting.

There would be "nothing worrying" about a second round, the Russian leader said yesterday, for the first time admitting that he was ready for such an eventuality. Mr Putin, who after four years as Prime Minister is standing for a return to the Kremlin as President, has faced a growing protest movement since his United Russia party was accused of dirty tricks in recent parliamentary elections.

He needs over 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a run-off in the presidential contest. With the protest mood growing, polls now put his popularity at between 40 and 50 per cent. This, along with closer scrutiny of potential voting irregularities, means a second round is a real possibility.

Facing Mr Putin in the election are three long-term challengers from the Communist Party, and two other supposed opposition parties that actually function with tacit Kremlin support. There is also the billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who is running on a liberal, pro-business platform. He too has faced accusations of being a Kremlin plant aimed at drawing support away from more radical leaders of the street protests.

The next major protest is planned this Saturday in Moscow, when it will be clear if December's mass rallies in the Russian capital, demonstrating against Mr Putin and his party, were a flash in the pan or the start of a sustained challenge to his authority.

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