MOSCOW Russian voters have sent Vladimir Putin a clear message that he must do more to keep them happy if he wants to extend his domination of the country for another 12 years.
Faced with signs of growing discontent from voters who cut back his United Russia party's parliamentary majority on Sunday, Putin faces a choice between spending his way out of trouble or getting tough to show he is still in control.
He will probably take the first option, addressing the economic problems that top many Russians' list of complaints as he prepares to reclaim the presidency in an election in March.
"He's likely to spend more. That's what he's done as prime minister. He's already raised the salaries of the army and pensioners, and he's about to do it for teachers," said Boris Makarenko of the Centre for Political Technologies think tank.
"Tightening the bolts would be the worst option. It won't work and it's not what voters who turned away from him want."
A shift to the left in the make-up of the State Duma lower house, where the communists made strong gains, could give Putin further reason to make state handouts to appease the opposition.
But the former KGB spy, who has built up the image of a tough guy with televised stunts such as bare-chested horseback riding, may still find it hard to resist pressure -- including from within his own party -- to return to the more authoritarian and energetic style that marked his 2000-2008 presidency.
"They (party members) want a return of Putin to the presidency of the Russian Federation ... and want the political style of his first term," said Sergei Markov, President of the Institute for Political Research, and a United Russia deputy.
The first task for Putin, he said, was "to clean the party of corrupt elements."
Putin, 59, is unlikely to show his hand quickly. For now, he is underlining the need for continuity and to boost the economy, but Sunday's election is likely to have touched off furious debate behind the scenes about what strategy he should adopt to win back voters.
WATERSHED ON SEPT 24
United Russia won Sunday's election but with only about half the votes cast. The party that has dominated the 450-seat Duma since 2003 had its majority cut from 315 seats to about 238.
It has all been going wrong for United Russia since September 24, the day Putin shocked even his own party by unveiling his plan to return to the presidency.
The moment that was intended to put the ruling party on course to a commanding victory in the parliamentary election turned out to be a watershed for other reasons.
Party faithful stared wide-eyed in surprise when Putin told a packed congress he would hand his job as prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev next year and his protege would lead United Russia into the election.
Party officials had to scramble to change posters and other paraphernalia for a campaign that had been expected to focus on Putin, who is still Russia's most popular politician.
"The mockups were ready, and the scripts for the campaign ads, and suddenly it turned out Medvedev and not Putin was leading the list," said Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Analysis think tank.
The campaign under Medvedev never really took off. He and Putin refused to take part in televised debates, and Medvedev's campaigning consisted mainly of taking his tie off and sitting down with supporters to discuss his policies at length.
Old-fashioned, tub-thumping, rebel-rousing election rallies were not on the agenda.
"It was a virtual campaign," said Gleb Pavlovksy, a former adviser to Medvedev.
VOTERS SAY THEY WON'T BE FOOLED AGAIN
September 24 was also the day when the former KGB spy's perceived high-handedness, and that of his party, finally became too much for some voters to bear.
Critics of United Russia have long called it "the party of swindlers and thieves" and accused it of abusing its position in power to sway election results.
But the revelation that Putin and Medvedev had agreed years ago to swap jobs in 2012 was the final straw for many voters who felt they had been duped into believing Medvedev would do more than just keep a seat warm for his mentor for four years.
"Now we know that Medvedev was a surrogate president. This is something they never told us, which was total disregard for the population," television presenter Vladimir Pozner said.
"The general atmosphere of dislike for this party had become pronounced. There was no way any campaign could change that."
He said United Russia had struggled after this to dissuade voters from protesting against Putin's perceived arrogance by switching allegiance to other parties, voting for anyone but his party. Some fear economic and political stagnation if he wins the maximum two more terms as president and rules until 2024.
The culmination of this change in the public mood was felt by Putin on November 20, when he was booed and jeered at a sports event -- a rare and direct show of public discontent.
United Russia also paid the price of failing to reduce the gulf between rich and poor in a country where a very small number had become extremely wealthy after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but many had seen relatively few benefits.
"Have we solved all problems? Does everyone in the city have a garden? No, of course not," said Andrei Vorobyov, a senior United Russia official. But, acknowledging economic problems must be tackled, he added: "We have to strive to do this."
RIGHT CAUSE BECAME WRONG CAUSE
The Kremlin's best-laid plans also went awry. The Kremlin had banked on the rise of metals tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov as leader of the pro-business Pravoye Delo (Right Cause) party to provide an ally in parliament.
But Prokhorov became overtly ambitious and was dumped by his party in a revolt which he said was inspired by the Kremlin. Political analysts agreed, saying he had become too hot for the Kremlin to handle, and the party flopped in Sunday's vote.
"They had to change the election plan model because it had involved a role for Mikhail Prokhorov," said Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.
Instead of Pravoye Delo entering the Duma, the communists and nationalist LDPR made gains. The left-leaning Just Russia, a more natural ally for United Russia, also garnered votes but may no longer be the pliant partner it once was.
Another setback for Putin was the failure to attract more support for the All-Russian People's Front, an umbrella group he created to persuade independent-minded people to run for parliament on United Russia's ticket.
Disillusioned, the party abandoned talk of the front almost as suddenly as it had started. After that, the campaign appeared to drift aimlessly, with Medvedev struggling to make an impact.
A videoblog of him extolling the virtues of badminton was widely derided and voters appeared to tire of the orchestrated antics that had helped Putin build his tough-guy image.
When Medvedev and Putin took the wheel of combine harvesters, it had little effect on television viewers.
Medvedev's performance was so lackluster, and United Russia's was so disappointing, that the president's credentials to become prime minister may have been undermined.
United Russia's future may also be in doubt if Putin chooses to distance himself from the largely discredited party.
A final option for Putin could be to confound his critics by becoming a more open, reform-minded leader after more than a decade in which he has made himself the personal centre of power in the world's largest country and biggest energy producer.
"The last option is that he becomes more open and announces his policy platform, and he and United Russia revisit the skills of compromise and managing relations with the opposition," Makarenko said.
Critics said that was unlikely.
"It is the beginning of the end (for Putin and his party). It (the result) shows a loss of prestige for the party and the country's leaders. They are more despised now than respected," said political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky.
(Additional reporting by Jennifer Rankin and Maria Tsvetkova)