Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Putin's grip on power tightens with Dumas success

SUPER-MAJORITY The Russian president's United Russia party now has enough seats to be able to change the nation's Constitution without other parties' support

AFP , Moscow

President Vladimir Putin tightened his iron grip on Russia Friday as his party secured enough seats in parliament to change the constitution and his most colorful opponent bowed out of next year's presidential race apparently under Kremlin pressure.

United Russia -- running in the December 7 parliamentary elections under the lone banner of loyalty to Putin -- announced that enough independents had jumped on board in recent days to secure the faction a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

"This morning we had 308" seats in the 450-member State Duma lower house of parliament, top United Russia deputy Vladimir Pekhin told reporters.

"Requests to join are still coming in," he said.

United Russia now has enough sway to approve constitutional changes without having to lobby for support from any other parties, although many of the remaining lawmakers are already on good terms with Putin's dominant administration.

Western analysts had long suspected that Putin was gunning for a two-thirds Duma majority in order to make sure that he can alter Russia's basic law should he wish.

One change could see Putin, 51, run for a third term after his all-but-guaranteed re-election in March. An opinion poll published Friday by the VTsIOM-A polling agency found that 75 of respondents said they would vote for Putin on March 14.

Others suggest Putin may want to centralize control over the regions by appointing regional governors.

Putin used a televised national question-and-answer session this month to dismiss speculation that he planned to alter Russia's basic law.

But he later also hinted that he was unhappy with relations between Moscow and the regions, suggesting that they enjoyed too much independence.

The Duma is also expected to play an important role in deciding Russia's future prime minister. The current cabinet is headed by Mikhail Kasyanov -- one of the few holdovers from the Boris Yeltsin administration in Putin's court who is widely expected to be dismissed in the coming months.

The prime minister is inherently seen here as the top potential successor to the president. Securing a dominant Duma majority could in effect allow Putin -- who presents the prime minister's candidacy for the chamber's approval -- to appoint his own successor.

In a symbolic gesture, Putin was expected to secure his stamp over parliament by appearing at the new Duma's inaugural session tomorrow -- for the first time since his term officially began in May 2000.

Meanwhile the road for Putin's re-election became even smoother Friday when Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- one of the few other politicians with broad name recognition and appeal in Russia -- pulled out of the race.

Zhirinovsky is widely recognized as the Russian clown prince who preaches ultra-nationalist ideology while privately bowing to every Kremlin whim.

He has participated and lost in every presidential election since 1991. Most analysts view him as a secret Kremlin stooge who was created as something of a scarecrow in a bid to prompt Western governments to support the more liberal forces of post-Soviet Russia.

But his party made strong gains in the Duma vote and emerged third in the popular poll. And he came in second in the VTsIOM-A poll, with support from seven percent of Russians who plan to vote in the March presidential election, way behind Putin's 75 percent.

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