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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 November 2007, 21:12 GMT
Putin takes centre stage
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

Vladimir Putin
President Putin is a major political asset for United Russia's campaign
When President Putin leapt up onto the stage at the rally in his honour in Moscow on Wednesday, he set an important precedent.

Never before has a serving Russian president openly campaigned on behalf of a political party in parliamentary elections for which he himself has been nominated as a candidate.

It is a bizarre situation. He is not a member of United Russia and he may not even take up a seat in parliament because he is not due to step down as president until next spring.

The style of the rally was also unprecedented. The slick, bubble-gum choreography was taken directly from the American school of electioneering.

So why the need to put on such a glitzy show with the top man as star performer in between performances by boy-bands and girl-groups?

"Putin is annoyed by the fact that [the strategy] hasn't worked out as he'd been promised," says political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.

"His decision to head the United Russia list [of parliamentary candidates] did not have the immediate effect of boosting United Russia's support to 70% as they had wanted."

Referendum on Putin

So getting President Putin up on stage in front of a crowd of 5,000 loyal supporters and more importantly in front of the cameras of state-run TV channels was an attempt to boost United Russia's popularity to the point where almost all opposition is eliminated.

United Russia rally
Mr Putin wants to boost United Russia support to 70%

And that is crucial for President Putin himself.

Because as the United Russia party itself keeps saying, the parliamentary election on 2 December is primarily a referendum on Mr Putin and his policies after his eight years in power.

An overwhelming majority for United Russia along with a high voter turnout would, the argument goes, help the president remain in power after his second term in office comes to an end early next year.

Under the current constitution he cannot stand for a third term.

So a new leadership concept is now being put forward by his supporters.

"We want the continuation of the same foreign and domestic policies, we want him to stay in politics, we want him as our national leader," said Olga, a member of United Russia, as she sat surrounded by flags at Wednesday's rally.

Role unclear

It was a cry much repeated during the rally by the long list of celebrity speakers which included actors, journalists and even a fighter-pilot.

Youngsters at the United Russia rally
Many of President Putin's supporters at the rally were young

But while the concept is being trumpeted, the detail certainly is not.

Ask people to define what exactly they mean by "national leader" and the list of possible answers is endless, ranging from speaker of parliament to the head of one the giant state-run corporations or to simply being the power behind the throne without holding any official position.

Some analysts here believe even Mr Putin has not yet made up his mind up.

Likewise the power elites which lie behind him. It is a dilemma.

The only way he and his inner circle can be certain of retaining power is through a third presidential term.

But that would only be possible by changing the constitution and the word is that Mr Putin does not want to do that even though he is a genuinely popular leader.

According to analysts, the uncertainty is breeding nervousness among the political elite who fear the transfer of power, when it comes, may leave them out in the cold.

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