MOSCOW (Reuters) - A packed Moscow stadium echoed to chants of Vladimir Putin's name when Russia's ruling party triumphantly confirmed him as its next presidential candidate.
The vote was unanimous. Perhaps that was just as well. Putin had, apparently jokingly, publicly chided the single party member who voted against the party list of candidates two months ago when it was drawn up for Sunday's parliamentary election.
The congress of United Russia drew comparisons with the stage-managed Communist Party meetings of the Soviet era, even if it was jazzed up for the modern era with some of the razzmatazz of a U.S.-style political convention.
United Russia dominates political life under Putin's chairmanship. Most of the government are members, and it achieved a Soviet-style result of 99 percent of votes in Chechnya in the 2007 parliamentary election.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has compared it to the party he once led and Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov describes it as a poor imitation of the all powerful Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Despite the many differences with the party whose policies included mass collectivization and the killing or jailing of millions of opponents, United Russia has been unable to avoid comparisons with the Soviet communists.
"There are certainly similarities with the Soviet Communist Party in the sense that it dominates the political space and some of the behavioral patterns are the same," said Boris Makarenko of the Centre for Political Technologies think tank.
"But the Soviet party was THE centre of power. United Russia is more a function of power."
MANY ROLES TO PLAY
United Russia was created in December 2001 from a merger of two political groups -- Unity and Otechestvo -- and has held sway in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, since winning 223 of the 450 seats in an election two years later.
It also won the 2007 election, securing 315 seats, and opinions polls suggest it will win Sunday's election, although with a reduced majority.
Putin used the party -- which he dominates from the top -- to help bring stability to Russia after the chaos of the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin, who faced a divided parliament in which the successor of the Soviet Communist Party was strong.
Yeltsin never succeeded in creating a party base to his power despite the appeals of allies to do so.
"Putin created a Soviet system of rule, a power vertical," said Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Merkator think tank. "United Russia helps the bureaucracy keep power and defends certain economic and political interests. It helps preserve stability."
The party brings together national politicians, regional governors, private businessmen and heads of state companies, as well as people from other walks of life. It has a role outside the election cycle, helping citizens sort out local problems.
But many experts say United Russia is mainly an instrument for winning elections for Putin and carrying out his policies.
"It's an election tool, it's a tool in parliament and it's a tool for defending Putin's stance in the public sphere," Makarenko said. "It is not a classical party as we know it, but it does represent voters who like Putin and his policies."
United Russia is built more around admiration for Putin than any ideology, and members say it allows more room for internal policy debate than the communists did.
Membership of the Communist Party was all but essential to get on in life in Soviet times, whereas membership of United Russia is relatively small at just over 2 million.
"Unlike the Soviet party, it's not decisive for your career," said political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky. "It has a role to play in the regions, it's a regional bureaucracy working for the centre, but it's not very important in the capital as such."
SIGNS OF FATIGUE
Voters are already showing signs of fatigue with a party dominated by a leader whose popularity, while still high, has slipped since he announced plans to swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev after the presidential election next March.
Many Russians saw this as a backroom deal worked out without consultation and without any consideration of voters.
Russia's biggest independent pollster said last month United Russia would win 252-253 places in the Duma, considerably less than it won four years ago.
The party's election campaign, consisting mainly of Putin and Medvedev outlining their policies at long televised meetings with supporters, has widely been seen as uninspired.
Attempts to create a Popular Front, under which independent candidates could run on the United Russia ticket without joining the party, met with only limited success. The party took part in televised election debates but Putin refused to do so.
The authors of a new book on United Russia, journalists Ilya Zhegulyov and Lyudmila Romanova, say it has failed to emulate the Soviet Communist Party or transform itself into a modern political organization and its days could be numbered.
"The party is nearing its demise. This campaign showed that the United Russia brand is finished," Zhegulyov told Reuters.
Oreshkin said: "It is not a real political party. It will fall apart as soon as the system (Putin created) starts to weaken."