Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has proposed creating a "broad popular front" ahead of Russia's parliamentary election, in an apparent attempt to counter growing public discontent with his political party and solidify support.
Putin's United Russia has a majority in Russia's parliament and is the dominant party in regional legislatures and governor's offices across the country. Polls, however, show its support declining as Russians increasingly associate the party with a corrupt bureaucracy.
Russia holds a parliamentary election in December that will set the scene for a presidential vote three months later in 2012. Putin, who stepped down as president in 2008 after serving two terms, has not said whether he will run, but his actions increasingly signal that he intends to reclaim the presidency.
Speaking Friday before hundreds of party members in the southern city of Volgograd, Putin said the new front should include not only United Russia but also other political parties, trade unions, women's organizations, youth groups and veterans' associations.
"It is important that everyone should have the possibility and the right not only to formulate their ideas and proposals for how best to develop Russia, but should be able to suggest their candidates, who would be able remain as independents but would be able to enter parliament on the United Russia ticket," he said in the televised address. Party members responded with raucous applause.
The ultimate goal, as his spokesman later made clear, is to solidify support for Putin across all segments of the Russian population.
The popular front will be formed "not on the basis of the party but more likely around Putin, the author of this idea," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian reporters traveling with the prime minister.
Putin's initiative would appear to undermine small, Kremlin-friendly parties that had hoped to benefit from United Russia's declining popularity.
"It seems to me that this is an attempt to make a one-party system, not only de facto but de jure," Leonid Gozman, co-leader of the pro-business party Right Cause, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
The leader of another party came under more direct pressure Friday. Boris Gryzlov, a leading member of United Russia, and the speaker of parliament's lower chamber, called for replacing the speaker of the upper chamber with a member of the dominant party.
The current speaker, Sergei Mironov, represents A Just Russia, a party that was created with the hope of luring away votes from the Communists, but it has had little success. A vote on ousting Mironov was set for later this month.