MOSCOW Russians will strip Vladimir Putin's ruling party of its huge majority in parliament at the December 4 election, narrowing the paramount leader's room for legislative maneuver when he returns to the Kremlin, a leading pollster predicted on Friday.
Based on its last major opinion survey before the election, Russia's biggest independent pollster said the United Russia party would win about 252-253 places in the 450-seat lower house of parliament, down from the 315 it has now.
If the party's majority is cut to 28 seats, Putin could still push through laws after the March 4 presidential vote he is almost certain to win, but he would have to enlist other parties' support for big changes like constitutional amendments.
The decline in support reflects what pollsters say is a sense of fatigue with the entrenched party and even with Putin, whose approval ratings remain high but who was jeered in public at a martial arts fight in Moscow last Sunday.
"The feeling is rising that the elections are being manipulated, are dishonest, and that is delegitimizing the entire system of power," said Lev Gudkov, director of Levada-Center which carried out the poll.
"United Russia is conducting quite a weak electoral campaign," Gudkov told reporters in Moscow.
"It doesn't really have much of a program."
Putin has tasked President Dmitry Medvedev with leading United Russia into the parliamentary election, and has hinted a poor showing by the party could affect his plan to appoint Medvedev as prime minister in a job swap announced in September.
United Russia could cede 50 seats to the Communist Party and the nationalist LDPR, the Levada poll showed.
"Campaign-wise, I don't see much of it actually," said Vitaly, a 30-year-old driver in Moscow who said he supported Putin.
"They give out calendars with the United Russia logo on them, but calendars are not enough. I don't see any party going and talking to people. There needs to be more campaigning."
An outburst of boos and whistling at Putin by fans at a martial arts fight last Sunday, and a sharp fall in opinion poll ratings earlier this month, had raised concerns Putin may be losing his legendary political touch.
Signs of disenchantment with Putin, who ruled as president from 2000-08, are extremely worrying for the Kremlin's political managers: Putin's self-portrayal as the anchor of Russian stability depends on his popularity.
But in Levada's November 18-21 poll, Putin's approval rating rose to 67 percent from a decade low of 61 percent recorded at the beginning of the month. Medvedev's was flat at 62 percent.
"Putin will easily win in the first round because the political field is managed and opponents have been sidelined," Gudkov said of the presidential election, which the upper house of parliament said on Friday would take place on March 4.
Supporters say Putin is popular because he brought order after the chaos which accompanied the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, though opponents say he has crafted a brittle political system too dependent on his own patronage.
Levada predicted the Communist Party would come second in the parliamentary election with about 94 seats, followed by LDPR, winning 59 seats, and the Just Russia party with 44 seats.
"There are a range of polls which show fatigue with this party," said Boris Dubin, an expert at Levada, said of United Russia.
He said there was a perception among voters that United Russia had not "achieved earth-shattering successes in either cementing stability or increasing living standards."
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Alexei Kalmykov and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Sophie Hares)