Putin searches for tame 'rival' to oppose him

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who has confirmed that he will run for a second term next year, is considered so certain to win re-election that the Kremlin faces an unexpected problem: not enough voters may turn out for the outcome to be valid.

The Russian constitution demands that for the result to stand, at least 50 per cent of voters must have gone to the polls. But in the parliamentary elections earlier this month, hailed as a convincing victory for the pro-Putin United Russia party, turnout across the country was only 55 per cent, and much lower in some places. Of those who did vote, a record proportion - 4.7 per cent - registered a protest by ticking the box labelled "against all candidates".

This combination of apathy and discontent could spell trouble for Mr Putin. It would be highly embarrassing if a re-run were forced by too low a turnout in the first round of the presidential election in March - so embarrassing that the Kremlin is said to be considering discreetly sponsoring a plausible, but not too plausible, opponent to make the race more exciting. There is also talk of some new controversial issue - unspecified, but something like higher taxation - being raised to generate interest among the voters.

Among the names being mooted for the Kremlin's "opposition" candidate is that of Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young academic lawyer and former deputy speaker of the Duma, who ran his parliamentary campaign as an independent democrat without party allegiance. Mr Ryzhkov is well thought of in reformist and moderate circles.

Last week, however, he announced plans to try to unite the few reformists elected to the new Duma in a new parliamentary grouping, to be known as the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS). He may feel that founding what could become a new reformist party would be a better use of his time and talents than standing against Mr Putin for the presidency, especially as any whiff of a Kremlin set-up could harm both his chances in the presidential election and a promising political career.

The Kremlin's near-total control of the mass media in Russia makes such ploys possible, but has also contributed to its image problem. Its aggressive use of its propaganda machine was condemned by international observers of the parliamentary elections for giving United Russia an unfair advantage. Assuming sufficient numbers of people cast their vote, Mr Putin can expect a first-round victory with an overall majority. Too swingeing a victory, however, would reinforce the impression of a regression to one-party rule.

Even though such a result might genuinely reflect the fact that Mr Putin consistently enjoys personal approval ratings of between 60 and 70 per cent, a walkover would not suggest the sort of vibrant democracy in action that Russia's post-Soviet leaders would like to project.

Another reason why the Kremlin may be trying to drum up some competition is that the effects of its propaganda campaign in favour of United Russia were not as clear-cut as foreign observers and others maintain. United Russia will be by far the largest party in the new parliament, but it still won only 37 per cent of the popular vote. This was no better than the combined vote of the two centrist parties that campaigned separately four years ago, before they amalgamated.

Russian analysts say that the Kremlin's support may have alienated almost as many voters as it encouraged. They also say that the widespread presumption of a United Russia victory meant that many people felt their vote - for or against - would make no difference. Mr Putin's dominance means that the voters' sense of impotence could be even greater in March.