Russian party challenges Putin vote bid in court

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MOSCOW, Nov 15 (Reuters) A Russian opposition party said today it had asked a court to disqualify Russian President Vladimir Putin from a parliamentary vote next month on the grounds his job gives him an unfair advantage.

Putin is leading the election slate of the United Russia party in the Dec 2 vote. His critics say the Kremlin will use its influence to manipulate the vote in the party's favour.

Officials deny the allegation.

Nikita Belykh, leader of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), a small liberal opposition party, said: ''Yesterday our party filed a suit with the Supreme Court asking it to exclude Vladimir Putin from United Russia's list of candidates for the parliamentary election.'' He told a news conference that the grounds for the suit were Putin's ''repeated violations of the law''. He added that the Kremlin was using its administrative clout to boost United Russia and make life difficult for the opposition.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said he could not comment. ''I cannot say anything. That is a question for the election commission. The things is that we, as the presidential administration, have nothing to do with the elections,'' he said.

The SPS is one of dozens of Russian political parties, which have lost parliamentary seats and most of their influence during Putin's eight-year presidency.

Putin's decision to head the United Russia's campaign has all but killed their chances in the election.

The SPS said it would join pre-election ''march of the discontented'' rallies for the first time, though it had scorned the rival movement, headed by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

''We want to not only speak words, but to act, to prove our position, so we will be participating in the upcoming ''Other Russia'' protests in St Petersburg and Moscow,'' he said.

Belykh criticised the harassment he said his party was facing, saying police had impounded 15 million of the party's newspapers and hampered its electioneering in many areas.

The SPS has already complained to the General Prosecutor's office about official pressure on the party.

Belykh mocked the 'Putin plan' for the country's future.

''The Putin plan is a plan to go backwards, economically, militarily and to keep in control the ruling elite of one big party,'' he said.

Opinion polls suggest United Russia will win at about 60 per cent of the vote in the election, while its nearest rivals have ratings in single figures. Putin is exploiting a legal loophole that allows elected officials to run for parliament and then turn down their seat after the election.

The Russian leader says he will step down at the end of his second term next year, in line with a clause in the constitution that limits presidents to two consecutive terms.

He said this week a big showing for United Russia would give him a ''moral right'' to influence government after he steps down.

REUTERS PD BST1605

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