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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dec. 2 A Vote on Putin's Future

Two middle-aged United Russia activists knocked on apartment doors in a southern Moscow neighborhood Saturday, a full week before parliamentary campaigning officially kicks off.

Asked by a reporter why they were out early, one snapped, "What have you got against Putin?"

Indeed, the State Duma elections on Dec. 2 are not about political parties, with United Russia set to win a resounding victory. Rather, the elections will be a referendum on President Vladimir Putin's future, United Russia and its opponents said.

"Dec. 2, in essence, will be a referendum in support of what Vladimir Putin has done, does and will do," Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior United Russia official, said in a statement late last week.

Putin, analysts said, will use the elections to get out of a bind: how to retain influence after building a Kremlin that has overwhelmed all other branches of power during his eight years in power. By deciding earlier this month to lead United Russia's list of Duma candidates, Putin has ensured that the elections will not be a contest among parties but a mandate for him, the analysts said.

"Why Putin did this with the elections and United Russia is clear. He is desperately looking for a political foothold after he leaves office," said Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Volodin, in his statement, said Putin should be able to influence the country's political life as leader of the party with a majority in the next Duma.

United Russia's popularity has soared since Putin climbed on board as its top candidate on Oct. 1, rising from 55 percent in late September to 68 percent, according to the latest nationwide survey by the independent Levada Center.

A Just Russia, the pro-Putin party that had hoped to fight the Communists for second place, seems to have suffered most over the same period.

"Our expectations have been reduced to just getting into the Duma," Just Russia spokesman Alexander Morozov said.

The party got just 5 percent in the survey, down from 7 percent in September. A party needs at least 7 percent of the vote to win representation in the Duma.

Putin's decision to align himself with United Russia has ended any intrigue in the elections and upset the strategies of all parties but the Communists, who rely on a solid core of devoted voters, Morozov said.

"We planned a massive and aggressive campaign against United Russia, but now with Putin at the top we have had to kill it," Morozov said.

The Communists expect to get about 14 percent of the vote, said Viktor Ilyukhin, a senior Communist deputy. This is how many core voters the party has, he said, citing the 2004 presidential election, where Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov collected 13.7 percent of the vote.

"We would have gotten better numbers [in December] if Putin had stayed away from the race," Ilyukhin said.

In fact, the Kremlin is trying to "substitute elections with hysteria about Putin's departure," Ivan Melnikov, the Communists' chief ideologist, said Monday.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians have staged rallies calling on Putin to stay on for a third term in recent weeks. Prominent cultural figures, including Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov and sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, have published an open letter to Putin, calling on him to stay on as "a national leader."

The Kremlin has denied that the appeals were part of a plan by Putin to retain control.

Putin on Friday repeated earlier statements that he would not change the Constitution to run for a third term. "As for my future job, I have not decided yet where and in which capacity I will work," he told a news conference at the EU-Russia summit in Portugal.

"There will be no diminution of the power of the president of the Russian Federation, as long as I have a say in it," he said.

He also said he would not serve in the Cabinet, casting doubt on a suggestion he made earlier this month that he might become prime minister.

On Monday, Central Elections Commission chief Vladimir Churov said he did not think that Putin's involvement with United Russia had changed the meaning of the Duma elections. "Any party may use any legal way to wage its own campaign," he said.

Analysts, however, said the groundswell of support for Putin would give him two clear options next year: to become a national leader as head of United Russia or to seek a third term in violation of the current Constitution.

If he opts for a third term, "running in the Duma elections would be kind of like the primaries for Putin," said Alexei Makarkin, analyst with the Center of Political Technologies.

If Putin chooses the role of national leader, he would need United Russia to claim an overwhelming victory in the elections to show the elite that he wields significant power and even might return to the Kremlin one day, Makarkin said. "It is important for Putin that United Russia wins big, let's say 70 percent of the vote, which is close to what Putin got running for the presidency in 2004," he said. "It should be a demonstrative, knockout victory."

Leading a party to a constitutional majority in the Duma would be, perhaps, the best way for Putin to retain influence, but he would be building his future on "soft clay," said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the Indem think tank.

"Being the informal leader of a party that won a constitutional majority is a big deal in a country with strong democratic institutions," he said. "But how can he rely on democratic institutions here after the Kremlin has been emasculating and compromising them, including the Duma, during his eight years in office?"

Analysts do see some bright points for democracy in the Duma elections. Putin's involvement might strengthen the Duma as an institution and the party system as a whole if United Russia pushes to form the government by parliamentary majority, said Dmitry Badovsky, an analyst with the Institute of Social Systems at Moscow State University. "These elections could be Putin's signal to the country that parties and the parliament should really matter," he said.

Currently, 48 percent of Russians believe the Duma is necessary, compared with 37 percent who say it is not, according to the Levada Center survey. The margin of error for all questions was 3 percentage points.

Another bright point is that the elections are happening at all, Shevtsova said. "They demonstrate that the government understands it needs at least a semblance of legitimacy to be acquired through the vote, although it cannot allow free elections," she said.

Staff Writer Natalya Krainova contributed to this report.