Putin's United Russia Party Nears Lowest-Ever Popularity After Pensions Backlash

Russian President Vladimir Putin's ruling party is hemorrhaging support, polling at its lowest levels since 2011, as public outrage over pension age increases builds.

United Russia, the party with the largest presence in the country's parliament, has long relied on its association with Putin for its popularity. However, approval for both party and leader have taken a hit according to both independent and state pollsters, after Russian lawmakers tried to quickly pass a much-postponed new pension policy on the eve of Russia's opening of the World Cup last month.

New figures now show that support for United Russia, the party that endorses the government's policy most strongly, now has the support of only 37 percent of Russians, state pollster WCIOM reported. The figure is very close to the party's lowest ever level of support of 34.4 percent, which it reached in 2011.

Protesters step on a decal with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally against the government’s proposed pension-age reform, in Moscow, on July 29. The draft law calls for the pension age to be raised gradually to 63 for women and 65 for men. Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

The recent trend follows estimated drops in approval of Putin and the Russian government, which is even less popular than United Russia, at 31.1 percent approval, according to WCIOM. Another state survey company and the independent Levada Center have also tracked similar figures.

The increase of the pension age will postpone Russians' retirement from the age of 60 to 65 for men and from the age of 55 to 63 for women, incrementally, over the next decade. The reason behind it is to help the government balance the budget as Russia's economy tries to recover from a recession caused by sanctions and disrupted trade with the West, as well as Moscow's overreliance on exporting oil, the price of which plummeted in 2014.

The first reading of the bill to raise the retirement age passed, however it is yet to move to Russia's upper house—the senate—which is the final step before a bill arrives on Putin's desk to sign it into law.

The move has triggered protests, however, from sections of the Russian public who feel they have had to unfairly bear the brunt of the country's economic woes. The policy is the first substantial change since the start of Putin's fourth term earlier this year. Figures show it has effectively undone the boost to his popularity in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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"These opinion polls show that at the end of the day what Russian citizens care about, even during this big event, is their economic well-being and their quality of life," Alina Polyakova, fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Newsweek earlier this month. "They care more about that than a couple weeks of fun," she says.

The average life expectancy in Russia is just over 70 years, and social services such as health care are a persistent cause for complaint among members of the public, prompting the World Bank to tell Moscow it must increase investment earlier this year. Currently less than 4 percent of Russia's gross domestic product goes toward health care. This amount is between one-half or one-third of what Europe's most developed economies, such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, spend, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).