Party Ponders Life After Landslide

At polling station No. 2074 at the Russian Academy of Sciences, President Vladimir Putin looked relaxed and content as he arrived with his wife, Lyudmila, to vote.

Most of the people at the station just froze, some clapped and, after he cast his ballot, one elderly woman even came up to him to thank him for taking care of the people.

"Thank God the election campaign is over," Putin said.

Putin has kept busy juggling his duties as president with those of United Russia's top candidate ever since he agreed to head the pro-Kremlin party's list.

Television cameras caught him taking a break with Lyudmila at a western Moscow restaurant after the vote, but with the question of his and the party's choice for his successor still up in the air, the break isn't likely to last long.

Putin has said the victory would strengthen his hand and give him the "moral authority" to expect the government and legislature to continue implementing his policies after he steps down as president next year.

Party leader Boris Gryzlov declared that task accomplished while addressing United Russia members at the party's headquarters on Sunday night.

"Vladimir Putin has won the first round," Gryzlov told a packed news conference after the first results were announced Sunday evening. "This is support for our national leader. A referendum has been held."

He added that the party leaders were to speak to Putin later that evening.

Gryzlov said the outcome of the vote clearly showed that Russia was a multiparty democracy and that Putin's course would continue. "It looks like we've received 250 seats."

United Russia is expected to convene later this month to nominate a candidate to see that plan through. Mayor Yury Luzhkov, a senior United Russia leader, suggested on Sunday that the party would convene on Dec. 17 and that the name of the candidate would be announced after that date.

"This is a very complicated question. Wait and be patient," he told reporters after casting his ballot in the morning, Interfax reported. The candidate will be named after consultations with Putin, Luzhkov added.

Whoever gets Putin's backing will be the prohibitive favorite to win in March, but the president has so far been silent on his choice -- whether because he is undecided, fears becoming a lame duck, or even plans to find a constitutional loophole to run again himself.

United Russia representatives said the convention was expected to take place later this month but that an exact date has yet to be confirmed. Andrei Vorobyov, chairman of United Russia's central executive committee, said by telephone that top party members were scheduled to meet later this week to decide on the date.

The convention will be part two of the Oct. 1 gathering where Putin made a surprise announcement that he would head the party's ticket and would "have to determine a presidential candidate," one State Duma source said.

Political parties have until Dec. 23 to nominate a candidate.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst who recently joined United Russia, said Putin was likely to endorse at least two candidates, which would probably mean that the presidential vote would go to a second round. This would stand in sharp contrast with the expected landslide triumph on Sunday, helping Putin cement his position as leader and demonstrate that he is a much stronger figure than his successor.

Even as the party was on its way to victory, there were reports that some house cleaning was on the way. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, citing sources close to the presidential administration and political analysts, reported Friday that some senior members, including Gryzlov, Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Volodin, Luzhkov and Tatarstan leader Mintimer Shaimiyev might soon be shown the door.

Both Vorobyov and United Russia spokesman Mikhail Chervakov said they were unaware of any such changes.

"It's clear we have weak spots. It would be silly to deny that," said Vorobyov, maintaining all the same that the party remained cohesive.

Putin has criticized United Russia for lacking a clear ideology and message, indicating that he only opted to lead it for lack of a better alternative.

Markov said he did not think the lack of ideology was as important as a lack of discipline in exercising power.

"One thing is clear," he said. "It has to become more effective."