Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to be elected Russia's new president with two-thirds of the vote, reversing a drop in popularity following December's fraud-tainted parliamentary election, according to a leading independent poll published Friday.
Lev Gudkov, the chief of poll company Levada Center, said the latest data showed Putin may win up to 66 percent of ballots in the first round of the March 4 presidential election.
The data indicated Putin's fortunes have changed dramatically following the parliamentary election that stoked massive public protests against his rule. He needs to win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff that would tarnish his 'father-of-the nation' image.
Putin won his previous two presidential terms in 2000 and 2004 in the first round, but moved into the prime minister's job in 2008 due to term limits. He has remained Russia's No. 1 leader, but his support has dropped amid growing public irritation with massive corruption and growing social inequality.
Levada's data indicated that a run-off is "practically impossible," Gudkov's deputy, Alexei Grazhdankin told The Associated Press. "Any dramatic change in the situation is unlikely to happen in the remaining week," he added.
Two other leading poll agencies had earlier predicted an outright victory for Putin. The opposition had pinned all hopes on a run-off.
Levada's nationwide poll of 1,600 people was conducted a few days ago and had a margin of error of no more than 3.7 percentage points.
While Putin seems all but certain to win the vote, there has been a steady decline in his popularity _ a trend pollsters describe as irreversible.
According to the Levada poll, Putin's approval rating has dropped from a peak of 85 percent in mid-2008 to 65 percent this month. Polls highlighted voters' increasing weariness with Putin's personality and his apparent inability to deliver on his promises, even though his campaign seems to have "put a growing mistrust with authorities on hold."
Respondents voiced concern over Putin's lavish promises of funding for nearly every part of the economy ahead of the vote. "High expectations soon create disappointment with the fact that these promises are impossible to implement," Gudkov said.
Expected hikes in utilities tariffs, gasoline prices and inflation are likely to cause "a rise of social instability" by the fall, the researchers warned.