Small step, but notable given the tight control Putin's party has over the media

MOSCOW—Vladimir Putin's United Russia party could lose as many as 50 seats in parliament in the elections on Dec. 4, pollsters and analysts said Friday, amid disillusion with sluggish economic growth and the Kremlin's ability to cope with the effects of the world financial crisis of 2008-09.

The loss in seats would mark the first such setback for Mr. Putin since he came to power 12 years ago. But the direct political impact is likely to be limited.

Workers attach an election poster of Vladimir Putin appealing for votes for the United Russia party onto an office building in the southern city of Krasnodar on Thursday.

United Russia should keep a majority in the State Duma, the lower house, and the Kremlin's grip over the political system remains tight. Pollsters say United Russia is likely to get about 53% of the vote next weekend, down from 64% four years ago. The poll results are the last that can be released under Russian law before the election.

The economic crisis has been the most serious challenge to the top-down political system assembled by Mr. Putin, which he plans to formally head again when he returns to the presidency next spring for another six and possibly 12 years. Stagnant living standards and rising corruption have fueled disillusionment with the Kremlin's pledges of stability, analysts say. United Russia, which has never been as popular as its charismatic leader, Mr. Putin, has suffered especially.

Russia's newly-minted middle-class voters "are worried about the specter of stagnation and they are critical of what is happening in the country," Lev Gudkov, head of the independent Levada polling center, told reporters Friday. "Half of them believe the government has no plan to get out of this crisis."

Valery Fyodorov, director of the state-run polling agency Vtsiom, said the likely drop in United Russia's results is "rather moderate" compared to the huge electoral reverses ruling parties in Europe and the U.S. have seen since the global financial crisis. "We made it through the crisis rather smoothly," he said.

But the elections come as Mr. Putin's own star-like qualities appear to have dulled, despite the fawning coverage from state-run television that helped vault him to power in previous years. Last week Mr. Putin, 59 years old, was booed when he appeared at a martial arts event in Moscow.

Party officials brush off the sagging poll numbers, but in recent weeks have scaled back their public forecasts for how many seats they expect to win in parliament. Gone are previous pledges to match the current majority of more than two-thirds of the seats—enough to make changes to the constitution.

Instead, party officials this week said they'd be satisfied with a simple majority of the 450-seat house. Immediately after the 2007 elections, United Russia used its commanding majority to amend the constitution to extend the presidential term from four to six years.

Vtsiom Friday forecast United Russia would get about 264 seats in the Duma, while Levada put the figure at 253. Those compare to 315 seats in the last elections in 2007.

The Communist Party and the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party are expected to pick up the most seats.

Analysts said the situation could still change in the last week of the campaign, with United Russia using its dominance of TV and other media for a final push. Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have stepped up anti-Western rhetoric—long a vote-winner for them—and are both scheduled to speak at a United Russia congress Sunday.

Opposition parties and vote monitors also say they're already seeing rising pressure on other parties from local authorities and fear efforts to manipulate the vote could grow.

Andrei Buzin, head of the Golos vote-monitoring group, said the authorities' most powerful tool is the ability to hamstring rival parties' campaigns, reducing their reach or keeping them off the ballot. Outright falsification, he said, wouldn't likely exceed 4% or 5% of the vote.

Meeting with United Russia leaders Thursday, Mr. Putin exhorted them "to attain the maximum result in these elections." "If we mess up the parliament," he warned, Russia would risk the kind of political gridlock that he blamed for blocking efforts to resolve the economic crises on the part of "our friends in Europe and our partners in the U.S.A."

Russia's economy has bounced back strongly from the bruising it took in the global financial crisis in 2008-09. But heavy government spending has made Russia more vulnerable to any weakness in prices for oil—its main export. Economists warn that a deepening of economic problems in the rest of the world could stall growth in Russia and trigger a sharp drop in the ruble.