Putin warns against possible poll run-off
Moscow - Russian strongman Vladimir Putin on Wednesday acknowledged he could fail to score an outright victory in March presidential polls but warned any second round risked sparking political instability.
Putin, who is seeking a historic third Kremlin term in March 4 presidential elections after his four-year stint as prime minister, has never before needed a run-off but is now being challenged by an upsurge of popular protests.
"I understand that a second round run-off is possible, according to the current legislation," Russian news agencies quoted Putin as saying at a meeting with young lawyers and future election observers.
"I also understand - and I think you do too - that a run-off would unavoidably be linked to the continuation of a struggle and the destabilisation of the political situation."
"But there's nothing scary about it. I am ready for that, to work in the second round, if need be."
Putin is wrestling with the acutest legitimacy crisis of his 12-year rule after he announced in September his plan to seek a third Kremlin term in a job swap with incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev.
His approval ratings have dropped to the extent that he may not poll 50% in the March 4 first round, forcing him to take part in a run-off three weeks later for the first time, a humiliating prospect for a leader used to sky-high ratings.
During a second round run-off, Putin would likely have to square off against veteran Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, his nearest challenger in the presidential race.
In 1996, Zyuganov forced the then president Boris Yeltsin into a run-off, sending a scare across the country that Russia would go back to its Communist past.
No anti-Kremlin candidate
Analysts said an unpredictable second round hardly suited Putin and his comments appeared aimed at convincing Russians that the elections were legitimate while rattling them with the spectre of instability.
"He absolutely does not need a second round and I think it will not happen. But he needs people to think that the outcome of the election has not been pre-determined," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
A recent poll by the independent Levada Centre predicted Putin would win in the first round of the vote but other recent surveys have given him lower ratings, with many Russians unsure how they will vote.
Besides Zyuganov, three other candidates will challenge Putin in the polls: Sergei Mironov of populist party A Just Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
The only genuinely anti-Kremlin candidate - veteran politician Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal Yabloko party - has been excluded from the race in a move seen as dealing a blow to the legitimacy of the election.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to march through Moscow in a rally organised by the nascent protest movement on Saturday, a third major anti-Putin protest since fraud-tainted December parliamentary polls.
Activists from the opposition movement Solidarnost (Solidarity) earlier on Wednesday briefly put up a huge banner on a building opposite the Kremlin that said "Putin - leave" and showed his face crossed out.
But Putin sought to indicate that he would not make the mistake of the Arab leaders ousted in the Arab Spring by clinging on to power at all costs if his support slipped away.
"I do not want to work and will not work if there is not support. There is no sense. Then different people should try and do better," he said in televised remarks.