MOSCOW Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told his ruling United Russia party on Friday it must listen to voters and explain its policies better if it wanted to reverse a decline in popularity before a parliamentary election.
Taking part in a debate at a party congress being watched for clues to whether he will run for president in March, Putin said Russia's leaders must be ready to make tough decisions.
Putin gave no hint about whether he or President Dmitry Medvedev would run in March. Both will address thousands of party members in a sports stadium in Moscow on Saturday.
"Responsible authorities should always not only listen to the heartbeat but if they see and understand it, then they should prescribe drugs if there is any sort of problem," Putin said, seated at a large table alongside other party members.
"The authorities should explain to people in a clear and understandable way -- not with truncheons and teargas, of course -- but with discussion and dialogue."
Putin has a reputation as a tough leader who is ready to take difficult decisions, so his remarks could be interpreted as underlining the need for him to lead Russia after the elections. But he made no reference to the presidency.
Although the congress is a chance for Putin to announce he wants to return to the post he held from 2000 to 2008, many political analysts expect him to delay his announcement until after the December 4 election to the State Duma lower house.
Opinion polls show United Russia could struggle to maintain its two-thirds majority in the Duma. But a strong performance would strengthen Putin's credentials, as the party's leader, to run for the presidency rather than Medvedev.
A poor performance by United Russia could signal that Putin's conservative policy is losing support, and prompt him to give the younger and more liberal Medvedev a second chance.
ROUBLE AND MARKETS ON THE SLIDE
United Russia will select candidates for the parliamentary election and discuss election strategy at the congress. Debate on Friday focused on how to handle voters' concerns, such as corruption, human rights and the justice system.
Human rights activists said in a letter that the December election would fall short of democratic standards and blamed the state for "a complete destruction of the institution of democratic elections."
Two people were detained in a protest outside the congress over what they called fixed elections.
The economy is another issue where voters want results, and many economists say the next government and president will have to embark on pension, and other, reforms that may cause unrest.
The rouble hit a two-year low on Friday and Russian stocks have been sliding, largely because of global economic fragility but also due to concerns over Russia's political uncertainty.
"The party urgently needs a campaign trick, something that will attract voters," said political analyst Pavel Salin.
He said United Russia could make a splash with a spending initiative or a piece of political reform, such as giving more powers to the Duma at the expense of the president.
Despite a string of public appearances that to many look like campaign outings, Putin has asked his party to avoid speculation about the presidency and focus on the Duma vote.
Worried by his party's flagging approval ratings and its showings in regional elections, Putin launched an umbrella group called the All-Russia People's Front in May in a bid to broaden support.
Activists from the People's Front will occupy 185 out of 600 places on the United Russia's parliamentary candidate lists, and speculation is growing that Medvedev might also be included.
United Russia's main rivals are the Communist Party and flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR, which supports the majority of government initiatives in the Duma.
Just Russia, the only other party with seats in the Duma, suffered a blow when United Russia ousted its leader from the post of upper parliament house speaker in May.
(Writing by Gleb Bryanski and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Robert Woodward)