ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin urged voters and politicians on Friday to unite behind the government and prevent Russian politics turning into a “circus” after Sunday’s parliamentary election.
Talking to a shipyard worker on the factory floor in St Petersburg, Putin echoed remarks by President Dmitry Medvedev calling for a strong parliament, amounting to an appeal for a big mandate for his ruling United Russia party.
Their party is expected to win the election to the State Duma lower house, but Putin and Medvedev have struggled during a lacklustre election campaign to prevent its huge majority being cut after signs of weariness with the party.
Putin, seeking to avoid an electoral setback that might take some of the gloss off his plan to return as president next year, said bickering among politicians would undermine the government.
“If people behind their TV screens see how people are fighting, pulling each other’s hair like in some neighbouring countries, then we won’t have coherent, effective work,” Putin said during the visit to Russia’s second city.
“If people want to see a show then they should go to the circus, theatre or the movies,” he said before laughing and shaking hands with a shipyard worker dressed in overalls.
But despite the smiles, shipyard team leader Alexander Bakunin said delays to his salary over recent months have marked the worst period in his life since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
“Honestly, I do not know who to vote for. They have all been lying to us,” he said after meeting Putin at the 150-year-old shipyard, where some equipment dates back to the 19th century.
Medvedev, who is leading the ruling party into Sunday’s election and is likely to become premier next year, made clear it would be a step backwards if voters chose a Duma as divided as it was during the 1990s, when rival parties quarrelled.
United Russia has dominated the parliament since 2003, making it little more than a rubber-stamp body for Putin.
“Will this be a legislative body that is torn by irreconcilable differences and is unable to decide anything, as we have unfortunately already had in our history?” Medvedev said in a nationwide address.
“Or will we get a functioning legislature where the majority are responsible politicians who can help raise the quality of life of our people, whose actions will be guided by the voters’ interests and national interests?” he said.
Opposition parties say United Russia has benefited from favourable television coverage and fear there will be voting irregularities, but Medvedev said: “In accordance with the law, conditions were created for free and equal competition.”
Many voters say they are not planning to vote because they expect the voting to be rigged and they are fed up with politicians not fulfilling their promises.
Campaign posters for United Russia have dominated cities in the run-up to the election and opposition parties say the ruling party has had much more air time on television.
Kommersant newspaper, which publishes the daily average amount of television coverage given to competing parties, showed United Russia taking the lion’s share of air time with over an hour. The liberal Yabloko party was second with 10 minutes.
The seven parties competing in the election were holding a series of rallies on Friday, the last day of campaigning across the world’s largest country and biggest energy producer.
Medvedev and Putin have appeared in numerous high-profile events to try to win votes for United Russia but opinion polls show it is unlikely to retain its two-thirds majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Although Putin’s personal ratings are still high, they have slipped from their peak and he was jeered when he spoke after a martial arts bout in Moscow last month.
He has reverted less often in the past few weeks to the kind of stunts that built up his macho image, such as shooting a tiger or riding a horse bare-chested, in a sign that advisers believe voters may have grown tired of such antics.
The biggest gainer in the election is expected to be Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party, still the main opposition force 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Opinion polls suggest it will come second, but far behind United Russia.
Also hoping for gains are Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist LDPR and Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko, which failed to win seats in the previous parliament.
Writing by Thomas Grove and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Peter Graff