MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin promised on Tuesday to turn back the clock and restore winter time in Russia if elected president, in a bid to woo millions of voters who have complained about waking up and going to work in darkness.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who will step down in May, scrapped winter time in 2011, arguing that switching the clock back and forth was bad for people's health. Medvedev's critics joked it was the incumbent's boldest move during his presidency.
"I am not going to stick to this decision. This is not some kind of a fetish. We can go back to it (winter time), but let's not do it in a hurry," Putin told a meeting of volunteers who will campaign on his behalf.
Putin is expected to win the March election but is facing growing protests from urban Russians unhappy with his decision to seek a third presidential term. The demonstrations also focused on accusations of fraud in December's parliamentary election, won by Putin's party.
In another populist move Putin also pledged to reduce the number of government cars using flashlights, which give them the right to ignore traffic rules and bypass traffic jams - a major irritant for Russian motorists.
Putin defended Medvedev's decision to scrap winter time, saying the outgoing president had wanted to avoid disrupting people's biological clocks.
"I spoke with Dmitry Anatolyevich (Medvedev) about it. He is not going to stick to it either. If the majority thinks that it was better before, we can go back to it," Putin told an audience packed with Russian pop and sports stars.
Before agreeing to step down and make way for his mentor Putin, Medvedev also reduced the number of time zones to nine from 11 in a country that stretches across 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles). This decision has not been criticized.
The Kremlin argued that the change to a permanent daylight saving time would increase the amount of perceived daylight by between seven and 17 percent but many Russians now complain that they now see the first sunlight only at around 10 in the morning
"I am already in the office by then and when I go back home it is already dark. I never see any daylight. If Putin brings the winter time back, I will happily vote for him," said Yulia Fedorova, a Moscow lawyer.
Many Moscow office workers attended last Saturday's protests and the demand to bring the winter time back featured among the protest slogans. "Down with the darkness. Bring back media freedom and the winter time," read one poster.
During a meeting with soccer fans in St.Petersburg last month, one supporter said the time change made it difficult to watch televised European matches and asked Putin whether the prime minister himself was happy waking up one hour earlier.
"I always find it difficult to wake up," said Putin, who schedules most of his appointments for the afternoon.
Reporting by Gleb Bryanski and Darya Korsunskaya; Editing by Andrew Heavens