By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin has submitted legislation to change the way the Russian parliament is elected, a move he says will advance democracy but critics say is aimed at bolstering his United Russia party.
The bill calls for half of the 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, to be filled by voters choosing individual candidates in districts. Currently all seats are filled by voting for parties.
The legislation is expected to pass. The United Russia party, loyal to Putin, has a majority in parliament despite losing seats in the December 2011 election that set off the biggest protests of his 13-year rule.
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a six-year term last May and could run for re-election in 2018, pointed to the legislation as part of efforts to improve democracy in his state of the nation speech in December.
But opponents say the bill is aimed at ensuring United Russia wins as many seats as possible. The party is much less popular than Putin and had its reputation damaged by allegations of fraud in the 2011 election.
The next Duma election is to be held late in 2016.
Kremlin critics say the party-list system has become dangerous for United Russia, which won less than 50 percent of the vote in 2011.
They say the party and the Kremlin could use the levers of power they hold nationwide to win seats, through methods ranging from pressuring state employees to vote and backing wealthy businessmen with the cash to mount effective campaigns.
"Practically everything in this law is aimed at preserving the monopoly of the 'party of power'," the leader of liberal opposition party Yabloko, Sergei Mitrokhin, said in a comment posted on the party's website.
Sergei Udaltsov, an opposition leader who is under house arrest on charges of plotting unrest that he says are part of a Kremlin crackdown, criticized the bill on Twitter for its lack of a provision allowing the creation of electoral blocs, which would increase the ability of Kremlin opponents to win seats.
Igor Lebedev, a Duma deputy from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR party, called the bill "a step back" and told the daily Vedomosti he believed United Russia would seek to boost its Duma presence by naming popular figures such as athletes and actors as candidates in district races.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Janet Lawrence)