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Can Vladimir Putin win back Russian voters?

Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party lost seats in Sunday's parliamentary election. As Russian discontent grows, can Putin regain lost ground in his presidential election bid?

By Timothy HeritageReuters / December 5, 2011

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin waves after voting in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011.

(AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool)

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Moscow

Russian voters have sent Vladimir Putin a clear message that he must do more to keep them happy if he wants to extend his domination of the country for another 12 years.

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Faced with signs of growing discontent from voters who cut back his United Russia party's parliamentary majority on Sunday, Putin faces a choice between spending his way out of trouble or getting tough to show he is still in control.

He will probably take the first option, addressing the economic problems that top many Russians' list of complaints as he prepares to reclaim the presidency in an election in March.

IN PICTURES: Putin's Action Hero Poses

"He's likely to spend more. That's what he's done as prime minister. He's already raised the salaries of the army and pensioners, and he's about to do it for teachers," said Boris Makarenko of the Centre for Political Technologies think tank.

"Tightening the bolts would be the worst option. It won't work and it's not what voters who turned away from him want."

A shift to the left in the make-up of the State Duma lower house, where the communists made strong gains, could give Putin further reason to make state handouts to appease the opposition.

But the former KGB spy, who has built up the image of a tough guy with televised stunts such as bare-chested horseback riding, may still find it hard to resist pressure -- including from within his own party -- to return to the more authoritarian and energetic style that marked his 2000-2008 presidency.

"They (party members) want a return of Putin to the presidency of the Russian Federation ... and want the political style of his first term," said Sergei Markov, President of the Institute for Political Research, and a United Russia deputy.

The first task for Putin, he said, was "to clean the party of corrupt elements".

Putin, 59, is unlikely to show his hand quickly. For now, he is underlining the need for continuity and to boost the economy, but Sunday's election is likely to have touched off furious debate behind the scenes about what strategy he should adopt to win back voters.

WATERSHED ON SEPT 24

United Russia won Sunday's election but with only about half the votes cast. The party that has dominated the 450-seat Duma since 2003 had its majority cut from 315 seats to about 238.

It has all been going wrong for United Russia since Sept. 24, the day Putin shocked even his own party by unveiling his plan to return to the presidency.

The moment that was intended to put the ruling party on course to a commanding victory in the parliamentary election turned out to be a watershed for other reasons.

Party faithful stared wide-eyed in surprise when Putin told a packed congress he would hand his job as prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev next year and his protege would lead United Russia into the election.

Party officials had to scramble to change posters and other paraphernalia for a campaign that had been expected to focus on Putin, who is still Russia's most popular politician.

"The mockups were ready, and the scripts for the campaign ads, and suddenly it turned out Medvedev and not Putin was leading the list," said Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Analysis think tank.

The campaign under Medvedev never really took off. He and Putin refused to take part in televised debates, and Medvedev's campaigning consisted mainly of taking his tie off and sitting down with supporters to discuss his policies at length.

Old-fashioned, tub-thumping, rebel-rousing election rallies were not on the agenda.

"It was a virtual campaign," said Gleb Pavlovksy, a former adviser to Medvedev.

VOTERS SAY THEY WON'T BE FOOLED AGAIN

Sept. 24 was also the day when the former KGB spy's perceived high-handedness, and that of his party, finally became too much for some voters to bear.

Critics of United Russia have long called it "the party of swindlers and thieves" and accused it abusing is position in power to sway election results.

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