updated 11/14/2008 7:54:33 AM ET 2008-11-14T12:54:33

Russian lawmakers on Friday tentatively backed constitutional changes that would extend the presidential term from four to six years.

Many observers believe the legislation could pave the way for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to return to the presidency.

The lower house of parliament, State Duma, voted 388-58 to pass the measure in the first of three readings. The chamber is dominated by the Kremlin-backed political party, United Russia.

Putin was a widely popular president, but he was barred constitutionally from seeking a third straight four-year term. He tapped longtime protege Dmitry Medvedev as his favored successor and Medvedev resoundingly won the post in March.

Putin has repeatedly said the legislation is not tailored for him and would be a boost for Russian democracy. The changes won't apply to Medvedev, who announced the move in his state-of-the-nation address last week.

Some analysts speculate that one scenario for Putin's return would involve Medvedev resigning early, which would then make Putin acting president and require new presidential elections — a vote that Putin would likely win overwhelmingly and then he could serve two six-year terms.

'Enough power'
After two more readings, the legislation must still be voted on by the upper house of parliament and by a majority of regional legislatures. United Russia dominates those legislative bodies, as well.

Before the vote, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov railed against the changes and said his faction would not back them.

"If we take the scope of power of the current president, he has more power then general secretary (of the Soviet Union), the czar and the pharaoh altogether. He has enough power to solve any issues. And there is not a single element of control over this authority," Zyuganov said.

"If tomorrow you choose the person, who is controlled by no one, for a six-year term, it will be an even bigger tragedy and danger for the country (than the economic crisis)," he said.

His opposition party controls 57 seats in the State Duma.

Lawmakers also Friday voted to extend the terms of legislators from four to five years.

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