MOSCOW — A top Kremlin official predicted Sunday that acting President Vladimir V. Putin will easily win the Russian presidency in March--in part because a law signed by former President Boris N. Yeltsin on his last day in office will make it tough for rival candidates to get on the ballot.
Igor V. Shabdurasulov, Putin's deputy chief of staff, said an election law approved by Yeltsin three hours before he resigned Friday will require each candidate to collect the signatures of 1 million registered voters in less than six weeks to win a place on the ballot.
"This means that there is simply no time left," Shabdurasulov said at a Kremlin briefing. "One million signatures is needed by every candidate to get registered. This is enormous work."
Yeltsin's unexpected resignation New Year's Eve was apparently designed to keep power in the hands of Russia's ruling elite--a group of wealthy oligarchs and Kremlin insiders known as "The Family."
As a result of Yeltsin's stepping down, a presidential election that had been scheduled for June is now tentatively set for March 26, cutting in half the time the candidates have to mount their campaigns. Under the previous election law, presidential candidates also had to collect 1 million signatures to qualify for the ballot, but if an early election was called, that number was slashed to 500,000.
The March election date works greatly to the advantage of Putin, who is at the peak of his popularity as prime minister but could lose support if the ongoing war he has spearheaded in the southern republic of Chechnya begins to lose momentum.
The signature requirement brought to light Sunday by Shabdurasulov is seemingly yet another going-away gift from Yeltsin to ensure victory for Putin, whom he designated his preferred successor when he appointed him prime minister in August.
Putin, who controls vast resources as head of state, is likely to have little trouble rounding up the million signatures he needs while conducting a vigorous campaign. But for his rivals, who have just finished a grueling parliamentary race, collecting them is likely to be a daunting task.
Only the Communist Party--the one nationwide grass-roots organization in Russia--has the structure in place to mount a quick signature drive to put its candidate, most probably party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, on the ballot.
For the Kremlin, Zyuganov would be Putin's ideal foe. The pugnacious Communist leader lost to Yeltsin in 1996 and has little chance of polling more than the Communists' core constituency, less than a quarter of the electorate.
At the same time, the million-signature rule will pose an especially large burden for Putin's biggest rival, former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, who took a pounding when his loosely organized Fatherland-All Russia movement finished behind the Putin-backed Unity bloc, 13% to 23%, in the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections. Not only will he need to rebuild his image quickly, but he will have to find the resources to collect a million signatures.
The signature requirement could also drive some of the lesser candidates out of the race. Since Yeltsin resigned, only Putin has declared his candidacy.
"In my opinion, Yeltsin's decision to resign brought nothing but grief to the contenders for the presidency except for Vladimir Putin, whose position has been strengthened," Shabdurasulov told reporters. "All the other candidates must have been disappointed big time."
The million-signature requirement was part of a 330-page election bill passed by parliament that includes other features that also turn out to favor Putin. It is unclear whether these provisions were deliberately factored in to aid the Kremlin.
While Putin, as acting president, will get plenty of free media exposure, candidates will be permitted to conduct campaign activities only in the final six weeks before the election. In addition, no candidate will be allowed to spend more than 25 million rubles--less than $1 million--to campaign.
If on Wednesday the upper house of parliament sets the election for March 26, as expected, the law will require candidates to submit their million valid signatures by Feb. 10. That would give them just 40 days to collect signatures--assuming they have already started.
In California, by contrast, where activists commonly use petition drives to put initiatives on the state ballot, the law allows 150 days for the collection of 371,000 registered voters' signatures.
Shabdurasulov said the Kremlin expects Putin to capture more than 50% of the vote, win the election in the first round and avoid a runoff--though such a goal has not been set.
"As the presidential administration, we must consider all possible options of the outcome of the elections," he said. "The option where Putin loses the elections is not considered realistic by us."
Putin has already shown he will be a tough campaigner. On New Year's Day, his first full day as acting president, he dashed off to northern Chechnya on a campaign-style trip to give gifts to Russian soldiers fighting Chechen militants. But Shabdurasulov said Putin does not plan to do more than hold his twin posts of acting president and prime minister. He will not campaign like Yeltsin, who in one well-known incident in 1996 jumped onstage in Rostov-on-Don and danced with a rock band.
"His [Putin's] activity in the capacity of chairman of the government as well as acting president will be a sufficient form of waging an election campaign," Shabdurasulov said. "There is absolutely no need for any overindulgence in all this 'two-steps-three-claps' business. Besides, this is not in Putin's nature."
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.