KRASNOYARSK, Russia President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday a convincing victory for the party he is leading in next month's parliamentary elections would give him the "moral right" to maintain strong influence in Russia after he steps down next year.
Putin's remarks in Siberia were the clearest affirmation yet that he plans to keep a powerful hold on Russia's reins, but he stopped short of saying whether he would seek a formal role.
Putin said last month that he would lead the dominant party's ticket in the Dec. 2 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. The decision appeared aimed at boosting the United Russia party's chances and ensuring himself a power base when term limits force him from office next year.
"If the people vote for United Russia, it means that a clear majority of the people put their trust in me, and in turn that means I will have the moral right to hold those in the Duma and the Cabinet responsible for the implementation of the tasks that have been set as of today," Putin said while drinking tea with workers at a road construction site in Krasnoyarsk, a vast Siberian region that reaches beyond the Arctic Circle.
"In what form I will do this, I cannot yet give a direct answer. But various possibilities exist," Putin said in response to a question from a construction worker who asked what he would do after he leaves office and why he had decided to lead the United Russia ticket. "If the result is the one I am counting on, I will have this opportunity."
In the parliamentary elections, voters will choose only among parties, not individuals. Seats are allocated proportionally to those parties that receive at least 7 percent of the vote.
The people who lead party tickets do not always take seats in parliament, and the Kremlin has said Putin has no intention of doing so. Since Putin agreed to head the United Russia ticket, the party has cast the election as a referendum on the president and the course he has set for the country.
Putin, who is immensely popular but barred by the constitution from seeking a third straight term in the March 2008 presidential election, has long indicated that he hopes to remain influential after stepping down and has not ruled out a bid to return to the Kremlin in 2012.
He said last month that he might become prime minister, but there have been indications that he would choose an informal path, using an overwhelming electoral victory for United Russia as a mandate to maintain authority as a national leader backed by the people.
Putin sought to reinforce that idea and send a message to those who have expressed doubt that he can manage to keep his grip on the country after leaving office.
"As the old saying goes, 'Victory belongs not to those who have might on their side but to those who have truth on their side,"' Putin said. "This has deep meaning."
More pragmatically, Putin also stressed that the Duma has the power to reject the president's nominee for prime minister, suggesting that with the dominant party behind him, he would have a check on the president elected to succeed him.
Putin was in Krasnoyarsk for a meeting with regional governors and Cabinet ministers focusing on the transport sector. He also met with students and instructors from major universities in Siberia and southern Russia.
For his first major trip inside Russia since the parliamentary campaign began and what the Kremlin says is likely to be his last before the vote he chose a region where voters gave him below-average support in the last national election.
While he was careful to stress that Putin's visit was "not political," the regional head of United Russia, Vyacheslav Novikov, said it would probably give the party a boost in the upcoming vote.
Across the city sprawled along the north-flowing Yenisei River, United Russia billboards reading "Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory" far outnumber other parties' ads, and smaller United Russia signs are affixed to lamppost after lamppost along the main avenue downtown.
A local state-run TV network late Monday showed Soviet-style preparations for Putin's visit, with a plow driver saying, "We're working for Putin," as he pushed snow off the long airport road. Another worker scraped ice from the guardrail.
Maria Nikitina, 18, an economics student walking downtown, had not heard of Putin's visit but said she planned to vote for United Russia largely because of its association with the president.
"Russia is rising, the country is moving forward," she said.
Opposition parties say the authorities use their power to unfairly benefit United Russia.
The regional head of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, Vladislav Korolyov, said that illegal pressure from the authorities is preventing his party from getting its message to voters.
Authorities pressure managers of potential campaign event venues to keep the party out, and police have barred the distribution of the party's campaign newspaper on trumped-up grounds, he said.
Opinion polls indicate United Russia will win a majority of votes and that only the Communist Party is certain to clear the 7 percent barrier.
Regardless of the election results, Yana Grinko, a 21-year-old university student who met with Putin, said she hopes he won't be out of the Kremlin for good.
"I hope he returns to us in 2012," she said.