- - Friday, February 24, 2012

MOSCOW — Rising discontent over corruption and a lack of real political reform ahead of Sunday’s presidential election could force Vladimir Putin into a run-off as he seeks to secure a third term in the Kremlin.

But even if that were to happen, few here believe Mr. Putin would have cause to worry over any of his four presidential rivals, whose credentials as genuine opposition candidates have all been called into question.

“Those candidates that are not in the Kremlin’s pocket are slapping at it and trying to get in,” said Alexei Mukhin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, a think tank. “It’s a warm and cozy place, and there is plenty of money inside.”

State-run pollster VTsIOM has predicted that Mr. Putin, the current prime minister, would win about 59 percent of the vote in the March 4 election.

His closest rival is Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose polling numbers have swung between 10 percent and 15 percent.

Mr. Zyuganov, 67, has taken part in every presidential election but one since 1996, when he forced eventual winner Boris Yeltsin into a run-off.

But he has failed to offer a serious challenge since then, finishing a distant second every time he has run.

“He is afraid of winning,” political analyst Valery Khomyakov said. “Both the party and its leader have found their niche as the main opposition force and it doesn’t appear as if they are ready to go beyond these limits.”

Mr. Zyuganov has offered a more animated campaign this time around, even signing a cooperation deal with the radical Left Front movement’s young leader, Sergei Udaltsov, one of the figureheads of the anti-Putin demonstrations.

Yet Mr. Zyuganov’s position as the candidate most likely to face Mr. Putin in a run-off has caused a dilemma among anti-government protesters.

“If there’s going to be a run-off election between Vladimir Putin and Gennady Zyuganov, should you vote for the communist leader?” said Andrei Kolesnikov in his column for the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

“How could an educated, forward-thinking person with steadfast democratic convictions and clear-cut moral principles vote for Putin? There’s no way. But how could such a person, on the other hand, vote for Zyuganov?”

Weakening image

Mr. Putin, 59, served as president from 2000 to 2008, when he was forced to step down by the constitution. He handed over power to his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and took up the post of prime minister.

Still, he has remained the county’s most powerful politician, incurring the wrath of demonstrators and critics who bemon the country’s economic disparities and his government’s corruption and backsliding on democratic reforms.

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